Barack Obama has come under heavy fire in recent years for the way he’s conducted US foreign policy. Ranging from Libya, to Iraq and Afghanistan, to Syria, to China and Asia, to Cuba and Gitmo, to Iran, and to Israel and Palestine, during his tenure as President, Obama has faced some monumental foreign policy challenges, and has made some decisions that – for better or worse – have contributed to the course of history. The President is coming toward the end of his final term, so talk of legacy is starting to be heard throughout the political community. Of course, becoming the first African-American President of the United States, implementing Obamacare, bringing into law sweeping immigration reforms, and saving the auto industry; all of these are worthy discussion points when it comes to judging his legacy. However history so often looks back on how US Presidents affect the course of global events, and for that reason Obama’s foreign policy decisions must be scrutinised, and we must try to judge them as history one day will.
Mr Obama was elected on the promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and true to his word, US troops have been withdrawn from both countries. Thus, he’s earned his Nobel Peace Prize, an accolade that puts Obama in an elite club with only 3 other Presidents (T. Roosevelt, Wilson & Carter). However another of his electoral promises was to shut down Guantanamo Bay, something he has failed to follow through on, to date. Yes, Congress has hamstrung him repeatedly on this issue, but he’s implemented some radical reforms and undertaken some decisive action with the Republican-Congress obstacle to hurdle on plenty of other issues, so it cannot be used as an excuse for all of his shortcomings. If that promise remains broken, it will be a stain on his presidential legacy. Likewise, the recent revelations about CIA ‘interrogation techniques’ (i.e. torture), while confirming what we already knew about the vile tactics used on terror suspects, appears to have continued under the Obama administration which means his legacy will be tarnished like Bush’s before him for the extreme measures taken in the ‘War on Terror’.
One of the defining moments of Obama’s first term remains the assault on the US embassy in Libya. It is a scar on US history and will always have the President’s name next to it, despite then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claiming full responsibility. The buck still stops at the man at the top, so Obama will regrettably be remembered as the President who saw an ambassador killed on his watch. The US’ role in the Libyan civil war and the toppling of Gaddafi will also frame a significant part of the narrative when retrospectively assessing Obama’s foreign policy decisions, but whether it will be viewed positively or negatively will only become clear with time. Initially, the US was praised for its role in eliminating a tyrannical dictator to cede power to an Arab Spring movement that desired democracy, but since that fateful civil war Libya has descended into further chaos, effectively splitting into two nations (east and west), each with their own centres of power and each with vastly contrasting ideologies. The sectarian violence that continues in Libya today is rapidly turning it into a jihadist training ground, and consequently Obama may come to be criticised for not playing a greater role in the reconstruction of Libya in the post-Gaddafi era.
Obama’s well-documented ‘pivot’ to Asia has proven to be more rhetoric than action. While he has indeed secured Free Trade Agreements with emerging South East Asian markets, he’s thus far proven ineffective in tackling Chinese cyber-hacking, despite his best intentions. While controlling North Korea is no small feat for any President, Kim Jong-Un has had some highly volatile moments since his rise to power, which doesn’t reflect well on the US. Meanwhile his efforts to defuse the tensions between China and Japan last year during the Senkaku Islands dispute seemed to have little impact, although those tensions did eventually cool. Where he does deserve praise is in strengthening ties with Modi’s India, and in admirable aid efforts and contributions to the Philippines in the wake of recent natural disasters, as well as search and rescue assistance with the MH370 disaster. The Obama administrations’ unbending commitment to foreign aid is distinctive from previous administrations, and suggests this President had hoped for more of a humanitarian role in geopolitical affairs, although recent events have forced his hand in another direction.
Syria perhaps is the epicentre of scrutiny in terms of Obama’s foreign policy; first his response to the Civil War, and second to the growing Islamic State caliphate that has its headquarters in Syria. When the people of Syria protested peacefully against the dictatorial rule of Bashar Al-Assad, and Assad’s reply was to order the killing of civilians, the world was united in outrage and condemnation. This progressed into a full-blown civil war, with democracy-seeking rebels pitted against the Assad regime. Obama could, and perhaps should, have intervened sooner to assist the Syrian rebels against the tyrannical Assad, before the country descended into a jihadi hotspot, and the moderate rebel opposition was infiltrated by extremist groups. Obama looked his weakest when he asserted that the use of chemical weapons by Assad was a ‘red line’ that if crossed would be met with serious consequences. Chemical weapons were used in Damascus against civilians, and while the President initially threatened military action, when its greatest European ally – war-weary Britain – voted against the use of force, Obama backed down. This sent a dangerous message around the world that America will no longer follow through on its word, and that chemical weapons may be used, with the only consequence being that Russia might take them off you if you agreed to hand them over. Even in the face of compelling evidence, you might even escape a trip to The Hague.
The rise of IS was unforeseen by many global leaders, and the west were slow to realise the significance of the group’s early actions in Iraq. Many now believe that if an early intervention was made, while the militant group was small, the situation today could have been avoided. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but all the same Obama naturally faces some blame, being Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military force. Eventually he did wade in with his “degrade and destroy” aerial offensive, but perhaps too late since the IS caliphate remains strong, stretching over miles of Iraqi and Syrian territory. Islamic State is now one of the world’s foremost security threats, with Western hostages being brutally executed, groups like Boko Haram pledging allegiance, and lone attackers across the world enacting their mad will in the name of the barbaric caliphate. For this reason, any President who may have had the opportunity to stem their rise, by intervening in the Syrian Civil War, or even tackling the militants head-on earlier, must come under significant scrutiny, and that scrutiny may be even harsher in the eyes of future historians if the meteoric rise of IS continues.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, if Obama succeeds in broking a deal with Iran that sees them suspend their nuclear programme, he’ll have achieved an almighty coup that cannot be belittled, although the role of the rational Rouhani of Iran should likewise not be diminished. In terms of Israel-Palestine, like every other President before him, his efforts, and those of John Kerry, to bring peace to the decades-old conflict have failed. In fact, recent fighting in Gaza saw over 2000 Palestinians killed, most of them civilians, some even in a UN school, along with close to 100 Israeli casualties (mostly military). Israel has also occupied acres of land on Palestinian –controlled territory in recent months, so that conflict is far from over, even if a ceasefire is in place for now. Of course, we cannot blame a US President for outbreaks of violence in such a volatile environment, but to come out in condemnation of Israel’s actions, but still sell them arms on an industrial scale makes the best of President’s look cripplingly hypocritical, even if Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu has become visibly strained.
In Europe, Obama has faced the growing threat of Russian hostility in Ukraine, first taking control of Crimea, and now the East of Ukraine through pro-Russian rebels. The fighting has seen a death toll exceeding 5000, and there has been mounting evidence that Russian military personal and equipment are directly involved in the conflict. The MH17 civilian flight being shot down over Ukraine by Russian weapons was perhaps the most internationally shocking moment of the ongoing crisis, and while no one wished for World War III, surely many were disappointed that the only punishment for a having a hand in killing hundreds of unsuspecting travelling civilians was economic sanctions. Putin has outplayed Obama, proven himself fearless in the face of international opposition, and has diminished the perception of US power by engaging in such blatant international aggression and only being served with sanctions. It’s worth noting that even though those sanctions are taking their toll on the Russian economy, Putin still hasn’t blinked, and shows no sign of doing so. Putin’s actions and Obama’s response have weakened the US internationally, and history won’t forget it.
Finally, where Obama will leave a truly positive legacy is in his recent decision to normalise relations with Cuba. Reengaging diplomatically with Cuba has been a long time coming, and the world collectively breathed a sigh of relief when Obama stepped up and made his announcement recently. The safe return of US political prisoners from Cuba was another significant accomplishment that Mr Obama can add to his Presidential résumé. One can now only hope that he can convince Congress to lift the outdated and nonsensical trade embargo on Cuba. If that is achieved, Obama will have left himself a legacy of reconciliation that history will certainly look back on fondly.
Overall, few would hail foreign policy as President Obama’s strongest attribute. He has been in power during a tumultuous geopolitical period of time, one that has seen many complex global issues to be faced, and he certainly hasn’t faced up to them all the right way by any stretch. It is clear that Obama intended to shift the US’ foreign policy away from military intervention, and towards more diplomacy, humanitarian assistance and trade. However, if a pacifist finds themselves being shot at, they have to pick up a gun and act like a fighter. This is to say that global events have prevented those intentions from being a reality. This does speak to his pragmatism however, that he was willing to face up to realpolitik, and use force in Libya, for example. However the appeasement of Putin and Assad, the indecisiveness with IS, and the Libyan embassy attack will all go down in history as Obama mistakes, tarnishing his foreign policy legacy. That being said, he will always be remembered as the President who brought Cuba in from the cold, and the significance of that won’t ever be underestimated.