President Barack Obama gathered his foreign policy team in the White House Situation Room several weeks after his 2012 re-election for a meeting to set his second-term agenda.
Now that he was free from the politics of another presidential campaign, Mr. Obama told the group, he wanted a “blue skies” assessment of all policies worth considering, according to participants. Nothing was off the table.
What emerged was a sweeping and fundamental re-orientation of U.S. foreign policy, highlighted by four initiatives: conclude a nuclear deal with Iran; renew diplomatic relations with Cuba; elevate climate change to a national-security issue; and complete a free-trade deal with Asia.
Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy offensive, described by a dozen current and former U.S. officials involved in its execution, was a blueprint to fulfill the president’s 2008 campaign pledge of breaking from decades of post-Cold War U.S. foreign-policy doctrine.
Together, the initiatives reflect Mr. Obama’s belief that diplomatic and economic engagement trump military power in winning lasting American influence. David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama’s closest advisers since the 2008 campaign, said the seeds of the president’s second-term foreign-policy agenda “were planted from the very first days of the first term.”
The effort has at times been rocky. All four initiatives have been controversial; in three of them—Iran, Cuba and climate change—Mr. Obama challenged Republicans and the foreign-policy establishment. And the trade deal set off a jarring collision with his own party.
Other problems have crowded the agenda and, in the eyes of critics, caught the president unprepared. China was a priority at the outset of the administration, but Beijing has repeatedly defied the White House, striking an aggressive posture in Asia, militarily and economically, that has alarmed U.S. allies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a campaign of intimidation against Ukraine, after the administration sought a “reset” in relations in Mr. Obama’s first term. Mr. Putin’s moves threaten the cooperation with Moscow that the administration needs to achieve some of its other goals, including nuclear arms reduction. And the Iran initiative has kindled a firestorm in relations with Israel, which Mr. Obama has had to invest personal time and capital to contain.
“Russia, Iran and China are each in their own way trying to change the international status quo…All three are seeing the American-backed world order looking vulnerable,” said Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College and scholar at the Hudson Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “So far, it doesn’t seem like the Obama administration has succeeded in changing the thinking in any of these countries’ capitals.”
In addition, the administration seemed surprised by the rapid rise of Islamic State across Syria and Iraq. Presidential aides were alarmed last summer when Mr. Obama said publicly he had no strategy against the militants. The remark indicated he feared that Iraq, a problem he had hoped to put behind him, was returning to knock his agenda off its course.
The comment drew a torrent of criticism, which for the president was like “a splash of cold water on his face,” one senior administration official said. Mr. Obama agreed to make a concerted effort to get back on course with his foreign-policy plan while elevating the fight against Islamic State on his priority list.
“He is looking at these issues and saying, ‘Yes we have to deal with terrorism, we have to deal with security challenges in the Middle East, but we can’t be consumed by that,’ in part because that is not the issue or the region that’s going to define the next 50 or 100 years,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser.
Mr. Rhodes was dispatched by the president at the December 2012 foreign-policy meeting to begin clandestine talks with Cuba, an initiative that has since opened the door to restoring diplomatic relations with Havana.
Soon after the meeting, U.S. diplomats also expanded secret contacts with Iran that have brought Washington within days of a possible deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.
Top White House officials say Mr. Obama’s first term was largely defined by the global economic crisis, twin wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as political battles in Washington. But the president in his second term became more willing to butt heads with foreign allies and Democratic leaders.
Israel and the Arab states have publicly broken from the White House over the Iran talks, and many Democratic lawmakers have fought Mr. Obama over a trade deal with Asia that opponents say could hurt U.S. workers.
A second-term administration push to secure an Arab-Israeli peace, driven by Secretary of State John Kerry, failed.
“Every president has to live within the parameters of politics, and there’s no doubt that there were limitations because of the last campaign,” Mr. Axelrod said. “But I think he’s actually been remarkably consistent, given that. He’s feeling the pressures of time.”
Some Republicans accuse the White House of pursuing an agenda that is weakening the U.S. and its allies, while splintering the Middle East. The emerging deal with Iran, they say, leaves that country still capable of making a nuclear weapon, while prompting such rivals as Saudi Arabia to seek their own bomb.
Mr. Obama also faces GOP criticism that he has failed to arrest moves to redraw international borders by Russia, as well as China. U.S. officials recently said China had positioned weapons on the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the latest in a continuing dispute over territorial claims to the archipelago, located in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
Relations were further strained this month after U.S. officials said they suspected Chinese hackers stole the personnel records of more than four million U.S. government workers.
Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy initiatives have spilled into the 2016 presidential campaign. GOP contenders say they will tie former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, to Mr. Obama’s record.
“It is up to our next president to right the wrongs done by the current one,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), a Republican presidential candidate, told the Council on Foreign Relations last month. “It is up to our next president to properly fund and modernize our military. It is up to our next president to restore our people’s faith in the promise and the power of the American ideal.”
“We’ve made some dangerous mistakes in recent years,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said this month when announcing his 2016 presidential bid. “The Obama administration, and some of my colleagues in Congress, substituted wishful thinking for sound national security strategy.”
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White House officials say that Mr. Obama has bolstered U.S. standing overseas, in part by reducing the exercise of military power in favor of diplomacy.
Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy ambitions date to the earliest days of his presidency, current and former advisers say. Two weeks before the 2008 election, Mr. Obama called foreign-policy experts, including his top Middle East adviser at the time, Dennis Ross, and the late State Department envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to a Chicago hotel to map out a first-term agenda.
Among Mr. Obama’s priorities were winding down the war in Iraq and containing Afghanistan’s Taliban, meeting participants said. Mr. Obama also wanted to engage Iran and its closest regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reversing the tack of his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
Weeks after taking office, Mr. Obama sent the first of at least four letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling for better ties, U.S. officials said. He sent senior envoys to meet Mr. Assad’s aides in Damascus. Neither Iran nor Syria embraced the overtures.
Other White House global objectives set in the first term, such as improving ties with Cuba, North Korea and Russia, lagged behind because of political resistance and changes in power in Pyongyang and Moscow.
The president’s successes in his first term included the killing of Osama bin Laden and completion of New START, an updated nuclear arms-control treaty with Moscow that was signed before Mr. Putin reclaimed the Russian presidency.
Mr. Obama also withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and oversaw a significant drawdown of American forces in Afghanistan. Critics say the Iraq withdrawal allowed Islamic State to flourish. White House officials said Iraq rejected a continued U.S. military presence, leaving Mr. Obama no choice.
After Mr. Obama’s 2012 re-election, he was determined to complete his campaign pledges, White House officials said, and felt he could take more political risks. Some of the sharpest criticism of Mr. Obama’s outreach, including Iran, has come from Democrats.
Changes abroad also emboldened Mr. Obama, administration officials said. International sanctions on Iran, for example, cut Tehran’s oil exports in half by late 2012, making Mr. Khamenei more likely, in the view of the White House, to negotiate on Iran’s nuclear program. Also, the global economy stabilized, strengthening Mr. Obama’s hand on trade. And Cuba’s ruling Castro brothers became isolated following the death in early 2013 of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan strongman who was their closest Latin American ally.
After Mr. Obama asked Mr. Rhodes to hold secret meetings with Cuban diplomats, officials from both governments met at hotels in Toronto and Ottawa for months before announcement of the talks in December.
The Iran nuclear negotiations required even more secret maneuvering. For nearly a year, beginning in March 2013, a team of U.S. negotiators met clandestinely with their Iranian counterparts in New York, Geneva and the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman.
The Americans flew in unmarked government planes. At times, they narrowly missed running into State Department colleagues traveling in the same cities on separate business, according to participants in the Iran talks.
With Mr. Obama’s climate-change policy goals hampered by a Republican-led Congress, the president moved to advance his proposals internationally. During a meeting at a California resort in June 2013, Mr. Obama pitched China’s new president, Xi Jinping, on forging a climate deal between Washington and Beijing. That was followed by private meetings among aides and a secret presidential letter that yielded new commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
When Mr. Obama’s secret initiatives regarding Iran and Cuba finally surfaced, they were criticized for having been executed without the knowledge of such close U.S. allies as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Colombia.
“You have an administration that has become, in its thinking and decision-making process, very centralized, and perhaps the most centralized since Nixon and Kissinger,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.
The president relies on advisers largely bereft of the establishment personalities of his first term, who included Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Ross and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Mr. Obama has since amassed a staff with views often at odds with mainstream Washington, and more in line with his own thinking. They include Mr. Rhodes, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power and White House Mideast expert Robert Malley—people who trace their connections back to Mr. Obama’s first presidential campaign.
Mr. Malley, the National Security Council’s top Middle East adviser, has argued for years that Washington needed to engage Iran and its proxies to stabilize the Mideast. His work before joining the White House team involved engaging members of Hamas and Hezbollah, both U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. That drew the ire of pro-Israel lobbying groups during the 2008 campaign and forced his resignation. Now, he is on the team negotiating with Iran.
Colin Kahl, Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, also backed engaging Iran before he joined the White House last year. “A deal might empower pragmatists by giving them a big win, potentially allowing them to claw back more influence on Iran’s foreign policy and push domestic reform,” he said last month.
The next few months could define Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy legacy and shape U.S. national security for years, according to both the White House and its critics.
Mr. Obama is pushing for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during talks this December in Paris, after netting China’s commitment.
On Monday Mr. Obama signed legislation, passed by Congress last week, giving him authority to wrap up negotiations on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, the free-trade deal on the president’s second-term foreign-policy agenda.
The president hopes to complete an agreement with Iran in coming days; negotiations will continue past Tuesday’s deadline.
Last month, Mr. Obama hosted the leaders of six Arab countries at his presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., to tout the benefits of a nuclear deal with Iran.
Some warned Mr. Obama that lifting economic sanctions on Tehran, and releasing as much as $150 billion of its frozen oil money in the deal, would fuel instability. They argued Tehran would use the money to fund Hamas, Hezbollah and its allies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Mr. Obama wasn’t persuaded.
“The president seemed utterly convinced in his views,” said one Arab official who was there.
Write to Jay Solomon at email@example.com