When President Barack Obama leaves office will the world be better or worse than eight years ago? Taking the big picture, so often obscured by the wars and uprisings that dominate the front page, more often than not he has resisted the foreign-policy establishment, most importantly in Syria, which makes a fetish of “credibility”. Obama has argued that “dropping bombs on someone to prove that you are willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force”.
In a long interview last April with Jeffrey Goldberg in Atlantic magazine Obama made the point, “Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow that comes out of the foreign policy establishment. The playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply”.
Nevertheless, despite his good principles, Obama leaves behind a Middle East in more of a mess than it was. The war in Afghanistan continues with the Taliban gaining the upper hand. The US has got partially sucked into an unnecessary and cruel war in Yemen with its support of the Saudi air force. The American invasion of Libya, along with France and the UK, liberated not a country but a hornets’ nest.
The relationship with China is better in some aspects but worse in others. Obama failed to stand up to the military overthrow of the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt, Muhammad Morsi. He has not made much effort to deal with nuclear-armed North Korea, constrained as he has been by Republicans in Congress who have sabotaged every previous government-to-government agreement. He leaves behind a dangerous state of affairs that might tempt the nuke-minded President Donald Trump to take pre-emptive action when it becomes clear in three or so years’ time that North Korea has a nuclear-tipped missile than could reach Los Angeles. Syria continues to be torn apart by civil war with the US helpless on the side-lines. Despite the large amount of time attempting to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians Obama has failed. He has attempted to be neutral but how that can be when he has just given Israel a massive new arms deal is to be wondered at.
As for the relationship with Russia this has been nothing short of a debacle, culminating, in partnership with the EU, in making a total hash of the Ukrainian crisis. He allowed the pace to be set by neo-fascist movements which wanted to provoke the government to confront Russia. Even worse, breaking a solemn American promise made to President Mikhail Gorbachev, he has expanded Nato right up to Russia’s border.
On the plus side the US recognition of Cuba has ended a too long era of hostility. He has given strong support to the increase in UN peacekeeping. He has taken the lead in harness with China in fighting climate change. He has pushed for policies that have brought down fast the number of child and maternal deaths in poor countries. The deal with Iran, made with EU and Russian negotiating support, to put firm limits on its nuclear program, was a masterpiece of diplomacy. The US killing of the head of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden put an end to a mass murderer but helped catalyse into action its replacement movement, the Islamic State (ISIS), which has set out to achieve the building of a region-wide caliphate in its own image. Nevertheless, as Obama has pointed out, it extends over mostly semi-desert territory. He has refrained from being intimidated by it. He has said that it isn’t the reincarnation of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. He has understood that the threat to the US and Europe is not large and is containable.
Although, compared with his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama has been a model of constraint, prudence and openness in foreign policy he has fallen badly short, albeit he has the good and valid excuse that he was badly hampered by inheriting the total mess created by Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard wrote recently in Foreign Policy, “A genuine “realist” foreign policy would have left Afghanistan promptly in 2009 (rather than surging the number of troops there by 60,000, albeit, Obama says, the Pentagon “jammed” him on this); converted our “special relationships” in the Middle East to normal ones, explicitly rejected further expansion of Nato; and eschewed “regime change” and other forms of social engineering in foreign countries such as Libya or Syria.”
I agree. I give Obama 6 out of ten for foreign policy and 8 out of ten for domestic. Now over to Donald Trump.