By William Beecher
Less than two weeks after Barack Obama assumed the Presidency of the United States, he was nominated for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Several months later, primarily on the basis of his eloquent speeches rather than his accomplishments, he was awarded that coveted recognition.
In his acceptance speech, Obama said he was “surprised” and “deeply humbled” by the award, but didn’t really feel deserving of the honor.
Now, after nearly six years of pursuing his strategy of reaching out a friendly hand of accommodation to adversaries, rather that what he considered George Bush’s menacing fist, and of disengaging the United States from increasingly unpopular wars and entanglements, has he lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Noble Prize Committee or of American voters?
In a word: no.
Let’s briefly review the record:
Early on, he decided to “re-set” relations with Russia. He fundamentally recast a planned missile defense project in Eastern Europe, which was aimed at defending against a potential Iranian missile threat but which Russia worried could be expanded to undermine its strategic offensive capability.
He hoped, among other things, that Vladimir Putin would feel grateful and would help broker an end to the civil war in Syria, with Moscow’s ally Bashar al-Assad agreeing to step down, and help achieve a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear weapons development effort. Putin has been colossally unhelpful in Syria, and it is still unclear how helpful he will be with Iran.
In Syria, for three years the Obama Administration refused to provide arms to the insurgents. And, finally, after threatening that if Assad crossed a “red line” and employed chemical weapons against his people, Obama would make him pay dearly. But instead of pulling the trigger on punitive drone strikes, he decided instead to accept an eleventh hour proposal by Moscow to allow Assad to surrender his “declared” stocks of chemical weapons.
That left Assad free to use tanks, planes, helicopter gunships, artillery, barrel bombs, starvation and, most recently, chlorine gas, against his enemies. Without question chlorine gas is a chemical weapon. What was the reaction from the Administration? “We’re trying to run this down,” said U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.
In his first campaign for the Presidency, Obama asserted that Iraq was the “wrong war,” while Afghanistan was the “right one.”
Three years into his first term, he declared that all U.S. troops would be out by the end of 2011. He made a half-hearted and predictably unsuccessful effort to negotiate to keep an American residual force in Iraq thereafter. So after a nine year conflict, in which 4,400 GIs lost their lives and 32,000 were wounded, Obama relinquished any hope of influencing the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose near dictatorial policies may pave the way to an all-out civil war.
As for Afghanistan, while not repeating the mistake of abandoning the country without a residual force, Obama decided to pull out all combat forces by the end of this year, without regard to the situation on the ground. A bloody civil war triggered by the resurgent Taliban is quite possible, even likely.
When the entirely unexpected “Arab spring” erupted in Egypt, Obama was urged to seize the opportunity to actively support historic change. Instead he stood back, aloof. It now appears likely that another military autocracy will take charge once again.
Obama obviously judged the world safe enough in Europe and the Middle East to slash the size of the U.S. armed forces and “pivot” to confront the mounting Chinese threat in Asia.
But a newly aggressive Putin has demonstrated that the situation is anything but calm and quiescent in Europe. No one can accuse Obama of “losing” Crimea or of encouraging further Russian threats in eastern Ukraine. But no doubt Obama’s feeble imposition of sanctions against Russia has done nothing to curb Putin’s adventurism.
With the time left in his second term, would it be prudent for Obama to revisit his rose-colored view of the world stage? One would hope so.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He is also a former Assistant Secretary of Defense.