On January 20, the Obama Era of American history will come to a close. Like many of his predecessors, he leaves behind a contentious legacy that is sure to occupy the attentions of historians and biographers for decades to come. His supporters make him seem like a paragon of virtue and liberal ideals, while his opponents portray him as a socialist demagogue determined to destroy America. Now that his administration is passing into history, it seems fair and obvious that neither description really fits. So what kind of leader was he?
While some of Obama’s most contentious and consequential policies, like his signature initiative, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), are beyond the scope of this blog, his foreign policy was important, and it’s worth taking a look back at what he managed to accomplish — and whether his policy will have an enduring impact.
Obama’s foreign policy was shaped above all by the legacy of his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush started 2 wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — and created an enduring image of America as an oppressive bully, especially in the Muslim world. Obama — capitalizing on a growing war-weariness among the American public, even among Republicans — sought to put an end to this and project an image of a nicer, gentler, more reasonable America. Always a critic of the Iraq War, which had been a personal project of Bush and his oil industry buddies anyway, he wasted little time in pulling American troops out, which was finished in 2011. He made a concerted effort to reassure ordinary Muslims that America wasn’t Islamophobic and thuggish, for instance by giving a speech with these themes at Egypt’s prestigious Cairo University in 2009. He made some efforts to distance America from Israel’s right-wing policies like building settlements in the West Bank and launching repeated wars against the Gaza Strip.
While Obama successfully differentiated himself from Bush (he is beloved in Europe and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009), it’s hard to discern how pacifist America has really become. He never really ended the war in Afghanistan; after an ineffectual “surge” (sudden increase in troops) in 2009, he pulled troop numbers down to 10,000, which remain in Afghanistan in an advisory role to support the fragile government there. It remains unstable, violent and messy.
America was caught off-guard by the turbulence of the Arab Spring of 2011, and Obama had to play a delicate balancing act, pressuring Arab dictators to step down or at least heed the protesters’ demands without really withdrawing support or taking the protesters’ side. As a result, he alienated both sides. When Egypt lapsed back into dictatorship in 2013, he reaffirmed America’s old support for the Egyptian military. He supported Saudi Arabia’s war against a Shi’ite uprising in Yemen. He went to war in the air over Libya to ensure a rebel victory there.
Looming over all of this in Obama’s foreign policy legacy is the disastrous war in Syria, born out of Bashar al-Assad’s repression of the protests there. Amidst international clamor for the US to get involved there, he dithered. The one time he did threaten to attack Syria was in retaliation for a poison gas attack in Damascus in 2013, and that ended peacefully with the removal and destruction of Syria’s sarin gas stockpile. Instead, America’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State, a jihadist rebel group in east Syria and northern Iraq. Ever since its dramatic expansion and declaration of a caliphate (transnational Islamic empire) in 2014, America has been bombing it relentlessly in concert with other concerned Western and regional countries. Given repeated Islamic State terrorist attacks in Europe and America, it’s hard to say that the policy is succeeding so far.
In other words, Obama has had to reconcile his desire for a more dovish foreign policy with the demands of national security. Mindful of domestic concerns about terrorism, he’s fought jihadists as hard as Bush did, but with an emphasis on drone strikes and commando operations to take them out. The former is how he killed Anwar al-Awlaqi, an American propagandist for suicide terrorism living in Yemen; the latter is how Usama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda and mastermind behind the devastating terrorist attack of 2001, met his fate. He is as hard-nosed and ruthless as Bush when it comes to killing terrorists, but with a marked preference for methods other than full-on war and the messy and difficult state-building that comes with it. Whether his strategy actually makes America safer remains to be seen; it seems hard to imagine a real reduction in terrorism without a serious change in Muslim attitudes, since many of them have marked America and the West in general as the enemy and will persist in fighting it until something changes their minds.
The other aspect of Obama’s nicer foreign policy was a willingness to accommodate rogue and unfriendly regimes. Here he has had more obvious success. First came Myanmar, an isolated and repressive dictatorship long subject to international sanctions and criticism. In response to increasing Chinese encroachment, it offered to open up its political system in the hopes that America would then lift its sanctions and let it open up its economic system. It did, and Obama even visited Myanmar to celebrate its new international posture in 2012 and 2014. Several ongoing conflicts notwithstanding, Myanmar now seems headed on a more successful and promising path. Then came Iran, a vital player in West Asian politics isolated by its strident anti-Americanism, threats against Israel and nuclear program. Although Obama’s initial overtures toward the Iranian regime were rebuffed, a punishing round of international sanctions brought it to the negotiating table after a more accommodating president was elected in 2013. The resulting deal on its nuclear program forced Iran to make real concessions at relatively little cost to the US. Finally, there was Cuba, a Communist country embargoed by America for decades. America’s rigid isolation of it seemed outdated and ineffective long before Obama came to power, and he seized upon opening diplomatic relations with it as an easy way to score a political victory and appease annoyed Latinos. Tourism has picked up and momentum is building for increasing commercial and personal ties with the island.
But in all of these cases, it’s unclear if the progress America has made will be sustained after Obama leaves office. His replacement, Donald Trump, has a much more sour view of the world, and Republicans in general tend to view good relations with sketchy regimes as a sign of weakness and/or appeasement. Myanmar might be playing the outside world for quick and easy money, and the much-loathed military still has effective veto power. Iran still supports Shi’ite militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen and remains deeply skeptical of American intentions. Cuba remains under an embargo with an anti-American Communist dictator. There are a few anti-American countries Obama wasn’t able to woo, like Venezuela and North Korea; Trump will have to deal with them.
Another one is Russia. Although Russia wasn’t quite an enemy state or rogue regime, relations with America had suffered in the later years of the Bush presidency. Obama hoped to “reset” relations and be more cooperative. It didn’t work: Russia got freaked out by the unrest of the Arab Spring and American support for anti-government protests in Russia in 2011-12, seeing America’s relations with dictatorships as a way for it to undermine them. In 2014 Russia stopped the pretense that it is a “normal” country and annexed Crimea in retaliation for a popular uprising in Ukraine. Since then it has upped the ante with an insurgency in east Ukraine, anti-Western propaganda, ominous military exercises, bellicose rhetoric and electoral shenanigans in the West (including America). Obama has responded with international sanctions and increased (financial) support for Ukraine. While Republicans at first thundered that these strategies were way too soft, they’ve since flipped (thanks to Trump) and complain that Obama is unfairly and ineffectually isolating Russia. Trump seems to want to be friends with Russia, or at least reach some sort of accord, so Obama’s relations with Russia may go down in history as his most ineffective and inconsequential foreign initiative.
Another 1 of Obama’s goals was to “pivot to Asia.” With fond memories of a childhood spent in Indonesia, he saw East Asia as a golden opportunity for spreading American influence, business and cultural norms in a region intimidated by the rise of China and with rapidly fading memories of the brutish America that ruined Vietnam. Despite the unending stream of crises coming out of West Asia, he saw East Asia as the true fulcrum of global power in the 2000s. He deployed American troops to the Philippines and Australia, cozied up to Vietnam and India, hosted leaders from ASEAN (the Association of South-East Asian Nations), sent naval patrols through the South China Sea, and quietly encouraged better relations between the crucial allies of Japan and South Korea.
The linchpin of this pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation grouping of Asian, Oceanian, North and Latin American countries eager for free trade, transparent business practices, and standardization of goods and services. After years of expecting the agreement to be just around the corner, especially after the normally globalist Republicans took both houses of Congress in 2014, the initiative faced a stunning defeat when Trump got elected, since he hates globalization. Despite continued interest in the deal from Japan (the other dominant partner), the future of the partnership without America looks uncertain. This defeat, combined with China’s renewed diplomatic, economic, and military overtures in East Asia, makes the importance of the pivot dubious. Asians always doubted how committed America was to their region, and betting too much on American influence seemed risky given that it’s not an Asian country. With Trump’s election, the Philippines’ new president caustically spurning America, and a chill in Thai-American relations after a coup there in 2014, it’s more common now to read dismissive evaluations of the pivot.
With ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq, a bloody mess in Syria, aggressive counter-terrorism operations, a newly hostile Russia, and a China apparently determined to gradually shove America out of East Asia, it might seem that Obama’s foreign policy record is bleak. There is certainly plenty of ammo for his critics to harp on and the rosy evaluations of his fans seem far-fetched or out of touch with reality. But Obama’s greatest success was in projecting a certain image of America, of reminding the world that the Texan “cowboy” caricature embodied by Bush is only 1 side of America’s identity. For all the cynical politicians who saw him as a naive weakling ripe for manipulation, there were an equal or greater number who appreciated his diplomatic, reasonable, nuanced approach and easygoing style. His interest in issues like regulating carbon emissions to limit the effects of climate change or promoting a bigger electricity grid in Africa won him many admirers, as did his willingness to engage with “ordinary” people in townhall events in India, China and Vietnam. His warm relations with other world leaders made it much easier to throw together international efforts like the sanctions against Iran and Russia, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the coalitions against Libya and the Islamic State.
Obama is often described as a “cool” president, both because he’s a pretty chill guy who relates well to ordinary people and because he takes a levelheaded, pragmatic approach to policy. He embraced Bill Clinton’s worldview — an America ready to use military force when (it feels that it’s) needed but more inclined toward soft power, like diplomacy, commercial pressure and foreign aid. He also took cues from Republican presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush (“First Bush”), who used America’s formidable military power but opted for restraint and deft diplomacy in more delicate situations. And if I may indulge in a personal opinion here, I believe that his background — a mixed-race man with a father of a different nationality and a childhood spent partially overseas — has shaped his worldview somewhat. Traditional American foreign policy credos like “America must be the world’s policeman, intervening in trouble spots to uphold international law & order” or “America is a liberal bastion of the best political, economic, and ideological systems ever invented and we should spread them wherever we can” are favored by the white, Protestant “Eastern Establishment” that has long dominated American politics and especially foreign policy. Obama is probably better able to see the world and its issues from a different perspective — that of the browner parts of the globe, who regard America with at least a little apprehension given its overwhelming power and influence.
Obama’s foreign policy was only a partial success. Too often people went easy on him for just Not Being Bush instead of what he actually did. In cases like Russia and Syria (which combined to horrifying effect near the end of his 2nd term), he didn’t always seem to know what to do. The world may now face yet another side of the American identity as Trump revises American foreign policy along his own lines. But Obama’s foreign policy may yet prove to be as inspirational to those who care about this stuff as his domestic policy was to young, liberal Americans. It suggests an America that’s not overbearing, loud, or obnoxious, that knows how to rub elbows and build careful strategic relationships and project a positive image to the world, yet also willing to strike hard and fast when world order or its own security is at threat. Most likely, more people will regret Obama’s departure than cheer it.