Jackson Diehl has a typically excellent and thought-provoking column in the Washington Post this week. He argues that Obama may well get away, at least to some extent, by claiming credit for ending the war in Iraq and decimating the al-Qaeda leadership: “Will independents in Ohio or Florida really be swayed if Iraqis go back to slaughtering one another?” But, Diehl points out, Obama has been a dismal failure in precisely the areas he promised to emphasize.
As evidence, he cites Obama’s promises to reinvigorate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, institute a regime for global nuclear arms control, and “engage” with American adversaries such as Iran, Venezuela and North Korea. All are either complete flops or have yielded meager results. To this list one can also add Obama’s promise to close the Guantanamo detention facility–yet another ideological brainstorm which has fallen flat in the real world.
By contrast, the biggest successes Obama can claim are a product of continuing and even expanding George W. Bush’s policies, for example by employing drone strikes against al-Qaeda targets. He would have done better if he had continued two other Bush policies by staying committed to the long-term reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with Diehl it is unlikely that even a near-term disaster in Iraq will cause Obama much damage in the fall election, but presidents have to think not only about their immediate election prospects but also about their long-term legacy. And history will not judge Obama kindly if he is seen to have squandered a chance to stabilize the situation in Iraq after so much American sacrifice. Nor will he be likely to get good marks from posterity if he is held responsible–like Jimmy Carter–for harming American military capabilities, a process that appears to be well under way with the massive cuts being made in the defense budget.