US President Barack Obama has been the subject of mixed reviews throughout his Presidency. His election in 2008 was off the back of a thoroughly hopeful, progressive campaign, heralding a new dawn for America. As the first African American to become President of the United States, the American public, and indeed the world, expected a lot.
In his time as President, he has dealt with the global financial crisis, introduced health care (Obamacare), and overseen the creation of 12 million new private sector jobs, all while ‘negotiating’ with the most combative and divided Congress since the Civil War period.
Opinions of whether Obama’s Presidency has been a successful one are many and varied, especially on the domestic front. His foreign policy score card is just as contentious.
The question is – how do we rate Obama’s foreign policy over the last seven years? Does the neutralising of Osama Bin Laden outweigh any criticism in other aspects of policy? Or has the escalating threat of ISIS and the lack of action in Syria put a permanent black mark next to his name?
Obama’s platform, from back when he was but a small-time Member of the Illinois Congress, was an opposition to the war in Iraq. It was, in his opinion, a ‘dumb war… a rash war…’ a ‘cynical attempt’ to shove ‘ideological agendas down [American’s] throats.’
His foreign policy position, in 2008, was to end the war in Iraq. He started the process of withdrawal as soon as he was in office, and by 2011 there were no more American troops in Iraq.
This popular move was followed up in May 2011 with another foreign policy gold star. A top-secret CIA/Navy Seal joint operation killed Osama Bin Laden after discovering him holed up in an Abbottabad compound. After a decade of the Bush administration’s vain attempts to locate the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks, Obama was lauded for his decisive and fairly risky move of neutralising the Al-Qaeda leader.
However, these two foreign policy and public opinion wins have been countered by fairly significant problems.
On September 11 2012, the United States embassy (as well as another compound a mile away) in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked, killing four Americans including the Ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens and the US Foreign Service Information Management Officer, Sean Smith. This tragedy was found to be a premeditated attack and not a response to the controversial Coptic-Christian movie, The Innocence of Muslims, as previously thought.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (now running for President) took responsibility for her Department having denied a request of extra security from the Embassy. The issue had serious political blowback on the Cabinet and the President himself.
The Benghazi incident was part of bigger tensions boiling over in the Middle East. The Arab Spring had liberated many living in the Middle East under fascist Islamist government – in places like Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya. But when the Arab Spring arrived in Syria, Bashir Al-Assad met the uprising with unadulterated tyranny.
As part of Obama’s foreign policy posturing, he said there was a ‘red line’ that would induce the United States to get involved in the Syrian conflict. This red line was the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces against the Syrian people. But even with evidence of serious human rights abuses – and yes, chemical weapons used on women and children – Obama still took the decision to intervene in Syria to Congress.
He was criticised widely for not making a definitive decision on America’s involvement in Syria.
The Syrian Conflict has since exploded into a brutal civil war, displacing millions of people in what has become a global refugee crisis. Some splinter groups originally banded to fight the Assad regime have formed the terrorist Islamic extremists, Islamic State.
The question is, would Obama’s early intervention in the Syrian crisis have prevented this? Was there anything the American President could have done better?
Obama’s administration, along with Clinton’s stewardship of the State Department, initially framed the Asia Pacific as the new sphere of influence for the 2008 administration. The Iraq war would be over with the Afghan war moved into a more manageable phase, and America would look to China and the Pacific for the next phase of diplomacy and prosperity.
But the Arab Spring derailed this course, and Obama’s Presidency seems likely to end with a deployment of more troops in the Middle East.
Obama has been, like many Presidents before him, fortune’s fool when it comes to foreign policy.
Foreign policy can be decided by maybe a keen eye for diplomacy and not much more, as a President cannot be expected to pre-empt or influence the actions of an oppressed people, a fanatical group, or an entrenched tyrant.
So how will he be remembered?
Obama’s legacy on foreign policy will, for my mind, be on his ability to succeed where his predecessor failed. Though the Islamic State has been pointed to as part product of the Iraq War, Obama withdrew troops from this war that he was opposed to from the beginning. He gave the orders that led to the extermination of America’s greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden, a man who had forever eluded George W. Bush.
Obama’s push to multilateralism – and leading from the back – in the Syrian conflict, has opened him up to criticism. It has made the next stage of his foreign policy decision making – his historic deal with Iran over its nuclear program – the defining moment of his time as President. Will he leave the post with more international transparency than he found it? Or will the next President be picking up the pieces of diplomacy?
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