Many supporters of President Barack Obama disparage President George W. Bush’s legacy. The 9/11 attacks happened on his watch. Guantanamo Bay became symbolic at best of American hypocrisy, and at worst showed the disdain the White House and Pentagon felt toward international law. And, even if the invasion of Afghanistan was justified, Bush’s decisions led to al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden’s escaping from Tora Bora. Many believe the invasion of Iraq to be the worst foreign policy decision in a half-century, if not more. Meanwhile, the Middle East peace process went nowhere, Iran’s nuclear program expanded exponentially, and both Russian and Chinese military might grew. The “Democratization” agenda achieved little but to destabilize the Middle East. Unilateralism and disdain for the environment ruled the day as Bush turned his back on the Kyoto Accords. That may be purposely ungenerous reading, but the point is that among the media, American diplomats, and the vast majority of the professorate, it remains the predominant view.
Obama entered office promising to close Guantanamo and end what he considered the illegal war in Iraq. In his inaugural address, he offered to engage with the enemies of the United States, and in his first television interview just over a week later, extended his hand specifically to Iran. He gave the go-ahead for the mission that killed Bin Laden. He stood up to Israel to place the Middle East peace process on more even footing and struck nuclear accords with both Russia and Iran. And, he reversed course and ended the half-century U.S. isolation of Cuba. Earlier this month, the U.S. acquiesced to the largest climate agreement ever reached. Clearly, the White House is proud of Obama’s legacy. Multiple journalists have reported how Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiating team discussed who might play them in a Hollywood movie. They treat boardroom antics as if they are battlefield heroics. Obama, for his part, seeks to cap his presidency with a visit to Cuba.
So what will Obama’s foreign policy legacy be? It will not be diplomatic success. Obama did not find a magic formula. Previous presidents faced adversaries making grand demands and chose, quest for legacy or not, that the price of agreement would be too high. Bill Clinton, for example, sought to accomplish three things before he left office: Normalize relations with Vietnam, achieve Arab-Israeli peace, and shake hands with Mohammad Khatami. He achieved the first; probably pursued the second for too long; and recognized that the price of the third would be detrimental to U.S. security, no matter what many academics, think-tankers, and activist journalists said to the contrary. Ronald Reagan bargained hard to end the Cold War; he did not hesitate to walk away from his Soviet counterparts even at the cost of summit failure when he had inadequate leverage or did not believe the celebration of an agreement worthy of its compromises to U.S. national security, nor was he willing to throw dissidents under the bus just because it is easy to do so. Jimmy Carter was positively hawkish compared to Obama, especially in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. President Harry S. Truman erred by omitting South Korea from the defensive perimeter enunciated by his national security council, but he nevertheless came to that country’s defense. What makes Obama and Kerry different is that he lowered the standards upon which administrations operated. Perhaps it was ego, perhaps it was moral equivalence but the result was the same.
The biggest divergence between Obama and his predecessors of both parties is the disdain Obama and his team has exhibited to dissidents and those living under repression. Obama turned his back on Iranian protesters in 2009, when a few choice words about the justice of the values for which they stood might have pumped adrenaline into a movement which stood for greater freedom and representation. Hillary Clinton had the U.S. Embassy in China turn over a blind dissident to his oppressors. Kerry and his team have repeatedly shown themselves willing to bargain away freedom, whether for American hostages, occupied Ukraine, Syrians fighting the murderous Assad and, most recently Cubans. After all, Kerry did not allow dissidents to attend the American embassy opening.
Obama’s disdain for democracy — and that of Kerry and his team — also shapes their attitude to Congress. Environmentalists castigated Bush for walking away from Kyoto, but it was Bill Clinton who did not submit it to Congress knowing he could not garner bipartisan support. Kerry also crafted the Iran deal to avoid the necessary Congressional treaty approval. To do so might have meant negotiating in a tougher manner that would have hampered the ability to make the concessions necessary to win an agreement at any price. Likewise, the White House withheld information from the Congress about Russian cheating on its previous arms accords in order to win new ones. Whatever the merits of the Benghazi investigation, the decision by the man Kerry put in charge of managing the response to Congressional demands for documents to instead give investigators magazine articles about Richard Gere is nothing short of a middle finger to the notion of separation of powers.
Contemporaries castigated Truman for standing up for democracy. The juxtaposition between North and South Korea shows how right Truman was to stand up for principles. Likewise, despite predictable academic revisionism, Reagan is remembered far better now for his role ending the Cold War than he was when he was fighting the battles — MX Missiles, Star Wars, “the Evil Empire speech” — which contributed to the ultimate victory. Obama and Kerry, on the other hand, have traded short-term acclamation for long-term security and recognition that the world is a better place when the United States — whatever our flaws — stands up as a beacon of freedom.