Fast approaching the end of his tenure, President Obama has already started to ponder about his legacy. His recent reflections on his presidency in Springfield, Illinois where he had kicked off his presidential campaign in 2007, struck a somber tone. Obama expressed his regret that he was unable to overcome deep polarization in American politics. Undeniably proud of his impressive rise to the helm of America as a man of color, Obama will be registered as the first African-American President of America for sure, but beyond that, his legacy will be subject to much debate and speculation.
With less than a year in the Oval Office, Obama’s legacy is shaped as much about America’s culture wars as it will be judged by his performance in foreign policy. Obama’s foreign policy, at least in some respects, is described by some as destructive yet others contend that Obama has done “acceptably well” in foreign policy. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death in a shooting range in Texas is a reminder of why domestic policy priorities, and not foreign policy, matter more for Americans in an election year. And yet, in a globalized world, American Presidents’ foreign policy instincts are watched closely – and Washington’s able public diplomacy machine works around the clock to shape how Obama is being perceived across remote locations.
As Obama’s opponents imply that he has “overlearned the lessons of the past,” one question lingers: Is Obama happy with his legacy despite tectonic changes in regions as diverse as North and West Africa, the Middle East and Far East Asia where the United States increasingly appears as a bystander rather than a global superpower? The short answer is yes. Obama thinks he was dealt a tough hand and he seems genuinely convinced he played his hand in line with America’s national interests. His formula is, “play smart and tough but don’t rush to war.” Many in Washington –including multiple former cabinet members of the two Obama administrations – disagree.
Moreover, views about Obama’s domestic and foreign policy preferences vary widely among his most committed base. The left of the spectrum Democrats are disappointed that Obama has not done enough on the domestic front and appeared too often too appeasing. Centrists share the President’s own regret that he failed to bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans. Independents seem conflicted about Obama. And Republicans, fueled by the undercurrents of presidential campaign, mercilessly attack him.
But the President has been decidedly confident in the face of much criticism from this wide spectrum. To him, the post-Bush era dictated tough-love. Economic recovery was supremely important and job numbers are his most concrete savior on that front. Wall Street, the hot-button issue among Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, has been tamed according to Obama. His signature domestic policy initiative, health care reform, survived the initial Supreme Court process and he is banking on his executive powers in the reminder of his term to deliver on whatever the Congress did not allow him to achieve. And yet, the Beltway does not always stand with the President.
In foreign policy, however, Obama era presents a more complicated track record. A fıxture in Foggy Bottom and White House’s foreign policy discourse has been the “multifaceted challenges” the West faces. And it seems Obama has brought a fresh breath of air to the analytical realm following the rigid positioning of the Bush era, but to his critics, Obama is poised to be registered in history as a failed President in foreign policy. Partisan rhetoric aside, many in Washington wonder if Obama realizes that his grand discourse is utterly out of touch with what geopolitics, and to some, mere humanitarian concerns, dictate.
Will Obama be the President who turned a blind eye to the suffering of millions of Syrians? The President who effectively obliterated his own red lines and damaged long-term American deterrence capabilities? White House would disagree. The no-nonsense doctrine meant that in foreign policy the White House would have to swallow the bitter pill and resist military engagements at all costs. But as many have argued, Obama was not being realistic at all. Critiques argued that although Obama had correctly diagnosed that further American involvement in the Middle East would play into the hands of organizations such as ISIS and Al-Qaida – a primary driver of violent extremism was the perception of foreign occupation – his treatment – non-intervention at all costs – was deeply flawed. At the operating table he appeared paralyzed, often second-guessing himself and remaining captive to his earlier diagnosis. Historians will continue to debate the ramifications of Obama’s cautious approach to the Syria-ISIS axis. In the meantime, the President and his close advisers will continue to highlight what appears to be the most immediate foreign policy achievements of American foreign policy, at least on the surface.
“Success” Stories and Wrong Lessons
Obama circles argue the President’s signature foreign policy achievements present geographic and thematic diversity: Normalization of relations with Cuba has been key to his regional perspective, The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides the White House with a global argument – the shaping of neoliberal economic order –and Iran Nuclear Deal, of course, came about after a meticulously planned campaign on both the domestic and international fronts. Obama decided to make Iran nuclear issue into a national security question early in his presidency. He was, once again, correct in his diagnosis. War with Iran had the potential to disturb too many bee holes and further embed American foreign and military machine into the Middle East. As Iraq and Afghanistan experiences undoubtedly weighed heavily on Obama’s foreign policy outlook, he convinced his own administration and successfully mobilized a diverse set of actors to back his vision for avoiding a war with Iran. If Obama had placed too much stock on diplomacy, though heavily tilted toward the sanctions route, and his hand was not as strong as he thought, the gambit paid off. Framing Iranian decision-makers as rational players, and not mere fanatics, was key to Obama’s playbook and he was proven right.
Following his “red lines” blunder in Syria, Obama saw an opportunity to rid the Syrian regime of its chemical weapons. Russia was on-board and Obama found an agent to coerce the Syrian regime to act “rationally.” But again, many argued, Obama learnt the wrong lessons from his Iran nuclear fight when he failed to enforce his own red line in Syria. From Vladimir Putin’s calculations in Ukraine and Syria to Pyongyang regime’s skillful exploitation of the intra-Pacific wars of influence, Obama’s playbook failed when translated into equally complex questions.
Neither the failed reset with Russia, nor the fruitless strategic patience with North Korea seem to have shaken the confidence of the Obama-Kerry duo who continue to follow their original playbook. No wonder the Republican discourse against Obama’s foreign policy is equally, and often more, self-contradictory. A mixture of liberal interventionism and neo-con adventurism underlies most Republicans’ approach to foreign policy questions. And many international audiences would have preferred Obama over a Republican administration any day up until the Syrian conflict. Especially in the Muslim world Syria has been a game-changer, however. Obama’s unwillingness to send in American troops en masse into Syria and Iraq may be commendable but at a time when the White House effectively outsourced its military prowess to drones and American Special Forces, the radicalizing features of American foreign and defense machine are already in place.
The President will likely present how conflicted he was about the terrible hand he was delivered in Syria. There are many who argue that Obama acted prudently in his Syria policy. But it is also true that the very echo chamber Obama found himself in was his own creation, more than anything else. The diagnosis – further military entanglement in the Middle East carries the potential to augment anti-American sentiments – was right, but Obama saw no better course than inaction once at the operating table. The counterproductive success story in Iran nuclear deal and ridding the Assad regime of its chemical weapons seems to have influenced much of Obama’s thinking. Despite dramatic changes in the ground game in the post-Arab Spring Middle East, Obama continued to believe that Putin’s inevitable economic troubles would lead the Russian strongman to adapt a “rational” course of action.
Similarly, the Administration’s talking points still signal hope for a more positive outlook in Iran’s regional outreach. America’s traditional allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are engulfed in their own troubles, in part thanks to American indecision with regards to its role in the Middle East. But history will judge Obama’s foreign policy mercilessly, and Obama’s rhetoric suggests he knows foreign policy is his Achilles’ heel. Perhaps he thinks it is just too late in the game to act on it.
The fact is, in the likelihood of a Trump or Sanders presidency, the Pentagon and State Department bureaucracies may overpower foreign policy making, after Obama White House’s hands-on approach to foreign policy. And after over a decade of being kept on a short leash, we may see turf wars between these two agencies. Obama might come to regret his inaction if the American military returns to the Middle East even more forcefully than fifteen years ago. Regardless of what happens in the presidential race, Obama’s dilemmas are poised to continue for the remainder of his term and it seems the President will continue to struggle for his legacy until January 20th.