Say this for Barack Obama: He was personally untarnished by scandal and he was consistently dignified and thoughtful. Those are all qualities we may miss before long. But it’s hard to judge his presidency as a tremendous success when voters chose to succeed him not his former secretary of state, pledged to continue his policies, but rather a candidate who has lambasted him and his administration in the harshest terms imaginable.
In the realm of foreign policy (I leave domestic policy to others), Obama deserves credit for continuing many of the war-on-terrorism policies launched by President George W. Bush. Indeed, Obama actually ramped up drone strikes and continued most of the Bush-era surveillance programs more or less intact. That he refused to engage in torture was merely a further codification of changes that had already been made in Bush’s second term. When it came to North Korea, he proved more hawkish than Bush by refusing to make any concessions to Pyongyang in order to jumpstart negotiations, a strategy that has consistently proven futile.
The achievements—at least from my perspective—pretty much end there. Certainly Obama never lived up the early promise of his presidency. One wonders if the Nobel Prize committee would still award him the Peace Prize that he received in the first year of his presidency. It seems doubtful. There has been precious little peace on Obama’s watch. His promise to end America’s war in Iraq resulted in an ill-advised pullout in 2011 that was far from inevitable. Within less than three years, American troops were back on Iraqi soil, but under far less advantageous circumstances. It is possible that the rise of ISIS may have been avoided altogether if only Obama had maintained a troop presence in Iraq and done more to stop the Syrian civil war.
Wary of repeating what he perceived to be Bush’s mistake of over-interventionism, Obama instead veered toward extreme non-interventionism, with the exception of Libya and Afghanistan, where he imposed such severe limitations on American action that it made success impossible to achieve. In Libya, he employed American airpower to topple Muammar Gaddafi but refused to sanction any follow-on peacekeeping forces to help a new, pro-Western government establish its authority. The predictable result: a vacuum of authority that allowed militias and terrorist groups to flourish. U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues paid with their lives for that failure. In Afghanistan, Obama tripled the U.S. commitment to 100,000 troops but imposed a crippling 18-month deadline on their deployment which encouraged the Taliban to wait them out and made it impossible to solidify security gains. The result: The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.
Obama’s failure to act in Syria will stand as his greatest short-coming, and it will haunt him in the same way that the failure to stop the Rwandan genocide haunted Bill Clinton. On Obama’s watch, at least 500,000 people have been killed in Syria and at least 10 million have fled their homes, with at least half of those becoming refugees in neighboring states. The knock-on effects of that refugee crisis have been to destabilize states not just in the Middle East but also in Europe, making it possible for the Brexit referendum to win in Britain and undermining Angela Merkel’s position in Germany. But the most parlous consequences of Obama’s inaction, aside from the obvious humanitarian cost, has been to allow terrorist groups such as ISIS and Hezbollah to flourish. Syria has been effectively divided between Shiite and Sunni jihadists, who are united by one thing: their loathing of America.
The signal failure in Syria was Obama’s unwillingness in 2013 to enforce his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. By backing off at the last minute, he undermined allies like France, which were ready to take military action, and he greatly strengthened not only Bashar Assad but also his patron in Moscow, Vladimir Putin. Beyond that, he sent a message of American irresolution that may well have encouraged Russia to engage in aggression against Ukraine and China to engage in aggression in the South China Sea. Both Europe and East Asia face security situations that are far worse than those that Obama inherited, and he cannot escape blame for this fact.
In both cases, the American response has been hobbled by the decline in our military strength in the face of Russian and Chinese rearmament—a result of the unwise budget cuts known as “sequestration” agreed to by the president and Congress. The “pivot to Asia” that Obama touted amounted to not much at all, because U.S. military strength in the Western Pacific has continued to decline relative to China.
Obama, for all his fine talk, also did far too little to stand up to aggressors or to champion human rights. He looked the other way while Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin imposed dictatorships on their countries, locking up and killing those who dared to oppose their rule. He had virtually nothing to say about human-rights in China. He reopened relations with Cuba, despite a lack of improvement on human rights on the part of the Castro dictatorship, and more recently tightened refugee policy to make it harder for Cubans fleeing communism to find a safe haven in America.
Obama imagines that his greatest achievement is the nuclear deal with Iran, but it will look even worse in retrospect because it does not end Iran’s nuclear program. Rather it merely delays it for a decade, while flooding Iran’s coffers with oil revenues that will be used to extend the sway of the new Persian Empire across the Middle East. Obama has looked the other way as Tehran has supported extremist militias in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. To take action would have risked blowing up the nuclear deal. The result has been to encourage Shiite extremism, which in turn has led to a backlash by Sunni extremists.
If there is one inadvertent benefit to Obama’s weak Middle East policy, it is that he has united Israel and Saudi Arabia in mutual opposition to American policy. But it does Obama no credit to note that his consistent hostility to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the democratic state he leads—exemplified by UN Ambassador Samantha Power’s unwillingness to veto a one-sided, anti-Israel resolution in the Security Council—has done nothing to advance the cause of peace. The prospect of a “final” deal between Israelis and Palestinians remains farther away than ever and the very idea of a “two-state solution” is now in doubt. Obama’s actions, designed to spur peace talks, only encouraged more terrorism.