By Jonathan Power
Make no mistake—Barack Obama is going to go down in history as one of the great American presidents. At home he has confronted a slew of issues—poverty, health, racism, gun laws, unemployment, immigration, and the criminal justice system—with amazing tenacity, sometimes to great effect, even though the Republicans have fought him tooth and nail over every attempt at reform. The economy is striding along, shaming Europe. Abroad, he has had to struggle on multiple fronts, more so than any other recent president. There are problems, especially in the Middle East, which would defeat any president. But there is a clear narrative running through Obama’s foreign policy, one that makes a lot of sense. And he has honored the commitment he made in his Nobel Peace Prize speech, at the onset of his presidency, to lower America’s propensity to use its military power.
His presidency began with an attempt to get relations with Russia back on an even keel. A good deal was made with President Vladimir Putin on further mutual reductions in nuclear arms. He concluded the withdrawal of the majority of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (170,000 down to 1,000 in Iraq and 100,000 down to 10,000 in Afghanistan). Later came his frustrating—and frustrated—effort to help the Arab Spring along. He navigated its perilous currents when it went wrong and faced up to the Syrian civil war and the appearance of the Islamic State. But the fact is that in the volatile Middle East the U.S. has limited ability to influence events when wealthy states like Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar can provide their neighbors both money and sophisticated weapons. He continued with successful diplomacy that led to recognizing Cuba and severely limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Along the way, the U.N.’s peacekeeping arm was significantly strengthened, and a civilized discourse with China was pursued, despite tension over islands in the South and East China seas.
The mistakes are there for all to see: going into Libya along with the Europeans, nearly going into Syria, and a poor sense of fine-tuning in the first days of the Arab Spring. But the commitment Obama made in Oslo shines through most of the time, except in three issues holding him down.
The first issue is Syria. When General David Petraeus was CIA chief, he, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, tried to persuade Obama to ship in small arms to select groups in the Syrian opposition. Obama asked the CIA to produce a paper on how often in the past U.S. arms had succeeded in helping rebels oust hostile governments. The answer: not very often. That confirmed Obama’s doubts.
Unfortunately, two years later, Obama was seriously tempted to send in the military. In the end he did a public somersault, despite his staff egging him on to bomb. The Pentagon had warned him that if he began bombing he should be prepared for escalation. He looked indecisive and uncertain, labels which critics have unfairly tied firmly round his neck. This time he was uncertain. But he learnt his lesson with the Syria decision—that he should stay true to his fundamental beliefs and not listen to the powerful shout from both outside and inside his administration, “Do something and do it now!” He is unlikely to return to the “bomb Syria” option. Even with Russia entering the fray he has told his colleagues not to look at Russia’s actions through a Cold War prism.
The second issue is the Islamic State. Obama has had no compunction or second thoughts about bombing the Islamic State, the ultra-fundamentalist Sunni movement that emerged in 2014 as the bastard child of the Iraq war. I think there could have been less violent ways of successfully combating the Islamic State; nevertheless, Obama has had good cause in just war theory for what he is doing. Sensibly, the U.S. is talking to both Russia and Iran in Vienna about what to do with Syria and the Islamic State.
The third issue is Ukraine. Obama and the European leaders made serious mistakes early on by showing a lack of flexibility in dealing with Russia’s age-old economic interests in Ukraine. They got drawn into supporting violent neo-fascist demonstrators who successfully upset the political apple cart with the deposition of President Viktor Yanukovych. But the subsequent Russian takeover of Crimea and the Russian military support for the eastern and southern rebels have been dealt coolly. Despite some wild talk in NATO’s headquarters about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops have not appeared in droves in Ukraine, and the West has not sent serious weapons to the Ukrainian army. Today Ukraine is being hung out to dry by both Obama and Putin until it gets its economy in order and its parliament passes the necessary devolution acts to give the east and the south a good measure of self-governance.
At some point in the last year of his presidency I predict Obama will find a way to reconcile with Putin. The Iran nuclear success brought them together; the Islamic State is doing that again. It wouldn’t surprise me if they find their way to a new round of nuclear weapons cuts.
Will Obama leave the world better than he found it? Partly yes, and partly no. There is less American military intervention. The number of boots on the ground is very small. But in total there are more serious problems than there were seven years ago, none of which were his making. A successor will find it very hard to do better—and will probably do worse.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]