Presidential Leadership in Foreign Policy-Making: Obama’s Decisions

Introduction

In the area of foreign policy, the US president has always been allowed broad power to protect and project America’s national interests around the world. It is the president who is responsible for setting policies, responding to foreign events, managing conflicts, negotiating international agreements, and governing the military. The importance of the subject discussed is that being a major innovative force within the government, the president holds the power of life and death and operates with a degree of discretion that he does not have in domestic affairs.

As compared to the twentieth century when presidents’ authority was limited by Congress, presidents of the twenty-first century dominate national security policy and have almost unrestrained power to elaborate the strategy for the US. The president’s decisions mold much of how the US decides to react to international affairs, which is why their actions in the realm of foreign policy may have ambiguous consequences not only for their country but also for the whole world to the extent which cannot be predicted.

The given essay will fully describe the president’s policy role and focus on Obama’s ambiguous decision regarding intervention in Syria. Further, such a decision will be evaluated constitutionally, philosophically, and biblically. A cogent conclusion will be made regarding the president’s leadership role in foreign affairs and its long-term repercussions.

Policy Role

The foreign policy of the US today covers various functions and issues, such as maintaining diplomatic relations with other countries and working with allies to assure international security. It is generally considered that the foreign powers are assigned both to Congress (through congressional activism) and the president, who is empowered to initiate and implement foreign policy. However, as Obama said, presidents tend to bring “more and more power into the executive branch and do not go through Congress at all.”1 According to the Constitution, the president has executive power, the power to “make treaties, appoint ambassadors, and receive ambassadors and public ministers.”2

The country’s leader acts as a head diplomat for the United States to maintain good foreign relations. It is also worth mentioning that the president is a “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States.”3 To avoid the adverse effect of the president’s actions on the US welfare, almost all president’s powers are shared with the Senate with the advice and consent of which the president makes treaties.

Over time, the president’s powers in foreign affairs have significantly expanded to the extent when the leader has an unlimited authority to speak on a country’s behalf. It is believed that the president’s dominance in foreign affairs is governed by the statement of him being a “sole organ”4 of the federal government. This, however, is a double-edged sword since the president may be either admired or hated by residents of their country. In fulfilling all the functions mentioned above, presidents make such decisions that have more or less significant political, social, and economic implications. Trump ordering a missile attack against Syria and Obama ordering to kill Osama bin Laden are only examples of how strongly the president’s decision may influence the US and the world community.

One particular instance of the president’s role in foreign policy-making is Obama’s decision to find a diplomatic resolution to the conflict in Syria instead of intervening militarily. The decision was taken in 2013 after reports about the usage of chemical weapons by Syria. Obama had previously claimed that the use of chemical weapons would entail military action from the US government.5 However, the Obama administration blamed the Syrian government only formally without taking any action and asked for Congressional approval for military intervention. Even after such permission had been received, Obama decided not to strike and came to an agreement with the Syrian government to destroy all the chemical weapons. In other words, when the red line was crossed, Obama decided not to interrupt in the lasting chaos in Syria.

Soon, the chemical arsenal disposal agreement was signed by Obama and Russian president Putin. According to it, Syria had to declare its chemical weapons and had it destroyed under international supervision.6 Consequently, the resolution that would have allowed Obama to use the American military to intervene in the civil war in Syria was not signed.7 Obama’s decision not to strike was considered as rhetorical and disappointed many Americans, leaving only a few ones with a mix of admiration and understanding.

The result of such inaction was as predictable as it was awful. Being left without any meaningful support from the American side, Syrian anti-government rebels suffered badly from Assad, and some Syrians turned to al-Qaeda. This reiterates the thesis statement that the president’s decisions are likely to have ambiguous consequences for the whole world. Governed by a desire not to involve American troops in the Syrian Civil War, Obama gave every reason for being accused of inaction and being selective in interventions.

However, the president did not seem to consider his inaction as immoral. In 2013, Obama said that he was proud of his decision that allowed for not entangling the US in the war and retaining from further escalation of the conflict.8 Also, it was clear that the president’s rationale was to continue to use diplomacy to promote peace. Nevertheless, there have been many opponents of Obama’s diplomatic resolution. In particular, he was accused of abjectly abandoning his global responsibility and doing nothing in response to the agony in Syria.9 Obama’s inaction was considered to be the president’s greatest geopolitical failure and biggest moral stain.

The proponents of Obama’s decision claimed that it was wise to stand by, and any shift in this policy options would not lead to a better outcome. At the same time, Obama’s inaction and subsequent successful Russian military campaign that followed the US-Russia peace proposal on Syria could allow Russia to establish close relationships with other countries. It seems that there are several levels of complexity at which Obama’s decision may be evaluated differently. Such ambiguity sets a sound basis for substantive analysis of Obama’s decision not only constitutionally but also philosophically and biblically.

Evaluation

Firstly, it is important to evaluate Obama’s decision to postpone the military strike in terms of the Constitution. The US Constitution does not state when the president has to intervene militarily in another country and when he has not. At the same time, the involvement of the US in another country’s civil war is also not governed by the document. Since Obama chose not to act, and Congress did not object to such a decision, one could state that the Constitution was not violated (solely because no decision was taken at all).

It would be more interesting to discuss the constitutionality of Obama’s hypothetical decision to intervene militarily. It has already been mentioned before that the president of the US has executive power. However, if Obama had opted to strike, that had to be preceded by the declaration of war. According to the Constitution, only Congress is granted the power to “declare war.”10 This means that Obama’s requested Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) should have been passed by Congress.

In other words, the decision to intervene militarily would be in agreement with the Constitution only if Congress approved such action. Moreover, according to the War Powers Resolution of 1973, Obama could only be permitted to “introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities”11 provided that there was a specific statutory authorization or a declaration of war. To sum up, Obama could not have taken the decision to strike without receiving approval from Congress.

On the other hand, it can be stated that Obama could take such a decision despite the skepticism of Congress. This is because the president can take the commander-in-chief role in cases when there are limited strikes as opposed to the congressional declaration of war. The use of force abroad without the congressional mandate would be thus justified when the president acts in the national interest. Considering the possible ambiguity of this concept, the flexibility of the president’s unilateral decision-making is almost unlimited.

Secondly, Obama’s decision can also be evaluated philosophically to understand his rationale better. It is possible to assume that Obama viewed the diplomatic resolution as the best option to promote peace. However, one could question the possibility of peace promotion when thousands of innocent people were killed by the Syrian regime with no foreign country willing to interrupt. Obama had firmly condemned the chaos inside Aleppo and claimed that he had always felt himself responsible for the carnage of the city. He also promised that he would immediately react to Assad using the chemical weapon.12 Nevertheless, the president decided not to act and stayed proud of his decision as a remarkable step to peacebuilding.

There are two ways in which Obama’s decision not to strike may be explained. On the one hand, Obama could have no intention to use force to settle peace. In such a case, he opted not to act to avoid conflict escalation. This, however, does not sit well with Obama’s previous interventions to Iraq and Libya. On the other hand, though, the true intention of the president was to avoid getting the US mired in another Middle East conflict, which could have unpredictable consequences. It can also be true that Obama understood that the American intervention to Syria would not be able to shape events in the civil war. In other words, American power has limits, so the US engagement could not have brought desirable outcomes.

Thirdly, the biblical character of Obama’s decision needs to be assessed. In Genesis, it is said that human beings were made “in the image of God.”13 This means that people were created as God’s representatives who abide by principles of moral justice. In turn, the concept of justice means that all humans are equal and deserve being treated with fairness. In contrast to social justice, biblical justice begins with the eternal in mind. People should thus pursue both physical and spiritual freedom of the oppressed in order for them to become what God created them to be.

It is not possible to clearly state whether Obama’s decision was in accordance with the Bible or not. On the one hand, Obama’s intervention would also promote the spread of evil to some extent as there would be new victims, and human suffering would not end at once. On the other hand, Obama chose not to help the oppressed Syrians who suffered from Assad’s regime. He thus let the wicked “go unpunished,”14 even though he had an option to strike. Finally, one could always note that it is only God who can decide when and how to do justice. The concept of the right of conscience does not apply to the given context because it is not moral but physical rights of Syrians that had been violated.

Conclusion

In summary, the president has the most significant role in making foreign policy. Being a leader, he is expected to speak from his country and act at national interests, which, however, is quite a flexible concept. It has been discussed that the Constitution is not uniform in the differentiation of powers between Congress and the president. The complexity of presidential decision-making is, therefore, inextricably linked with the absence of a single standard on which the president could rely. Considering such a great responsibility posed by the Constitution and the residents of the US, the president should be careful in making decisions that can have unintended results for the whole world. The best role for the president is the role of the country’s leader who has sufficient executive power in policy-making, though whose actions are controlled by Congress.

Bibliography

Edwards, George C., Kenneth R. Mayer, and Stephen J. Wayne. Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making. Stamford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018.

Gani, Jasmine. “Obama’s Inaction in Syria Is Nothing New – the US Has Been Selective in Its Middle Eastern Interventions for a Century.The LSE US Centre’s Daily Blog, 2014. Web.

Magoc, Chris J., and David Bernstein. Imperialism and Expansion in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015.

Sollenberger, Mitchel A., and Mark J. Rozell. The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012.

The Encyclopedia of American Politics. “The Obama Administration on Syria, 2009-2017.” Web.

Footnotes

  1. Mitchel A. Sollenberger and Mark J. Rozell, The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012), 147.
  2. George C. Edwards, Kenneth R. Mayer, and Stephen J. Wayne, Presidential Leadership: Politics and Policy Making (Stamford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2018), 442.
  3. U.S. Const. art. I, § 3.
  4. U.S. v. Curtiss Wright, 299 U.S. 304 (1936).
  5. The Encyclopedia of American Politics, “The Obama Administration on Syria, 2009-2017,” Web.
  6. Chris J. Magoc and David Bernstein, Imperialism and Expansion in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2015), 1519.
  7. Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the Government of Syria to Respond to the Use of Chemical Weapons, S.Res. 21, 113th Cong. (2013).
  8. Magoc and Bernstein, Imperialism and Expansion in American History, 1518.
  9. Jasmine Gani, “Obama’s Inaction in Syria Is Nothing New – the US Has Been Selective in Its Middle Eastern Interventions for a Century,” The LSE US Centre’s Daily Blog, 2014. Web.
  10. U.S. Const. art. I, § 8.
  11. War Powers Act of 1973, H.R. 4858, 93rd Cong. (1973).
  12. Magoc and Bernstein, Imperialism and Expansion in American History, 1519.
  13. Gen. 1:27.
  14. Prov. 11:21.