What is the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, who won a Nobel peace prize not for his accomplishments as US president but for the expectations his entry into the White House aroused? Obama is receiving glowing tributes from many Democrats and establishment commentators for his record in clinching deals like the Paris climate change agreement, the nuclear accord with Iran and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these deals are already under threat from his successor, Donald Trump.
More significant is the fact that many of Obama’s own supporters believe the Nobel prize to him was “a mistake”. He got the prize in the hope that he would be fundamentally different from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Yet, paradoxically, Obama — the supposed peacemaker — turned out to be a mirror image of Bush on foreign policy.
To set himself apart from Bush’s aggressive “hard power” approach, Obama campaigned to become president on a foreign-policy platform of “smart power”. Yet in office, Obama relied heavily on raw power, waging serial military campaigns from Somalia and Yemen to Iraq and Syria and initiating “targeted killing” of even US citizens with suspected ties to terrorism. Obama championed “a nuclear-free world” only to quietly pursue an extensive expansion of the US nuclear arsenal.
Indeed, if one disregards his softer tone in comparison with Bush’s strident rhetoric and examines his record, it becomes apparent that Obama was even more interventionist than Bush. Last year’s military data, for example, shows that the US dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven countries. This happened under a president who, while deploring the ethos of “might makes right”, told the UN that “right makes might”.
In truth, Obama, like Bush, paid little heed to international law — or even American law — when it came in the way of his overseas military operations. For example, Obama did not seek UN or US congressional authorisation before launching an air war in Syria. In fact, he speciously justified his bombing campaign in Syria by relying on the unrelated congressional authority that Bush secured to go after those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks.
In Libya, the success of the 2011 US-led operation to topple Muammar Gaddafi quickly bred chaos and mayhem. Obama will be remembered in history for demolishing Libya in the same way that Bush unravelled Iraq. The collapse of the Libyan state has created a jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.
Obama’s CIA-led, regime-change operation in Syria, although unsuccessful, contributed to plunging another secular Muslim autocracy into jihadist upheaval. Obama indeed presided over the birth of the most potent terrorist organisation in modern history — ISIS, which still controls large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq even 29 months after Obama began an air war against it. As John Kerry has admitted, the Obama team viewed ISIS’s rise as a possibly useful development to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, only to see it grow into a monster.
The rise of this hydra-headed group represents just the latest example of how successive US presidents have been fighting the consequences of their own short-sighted policies. The US has first trained and armed non-state combatants in breach of international law, calling them “freedom fighters” or “the opposition”. Then it has branded the same militants as “extremists” and “terrorists” and waged war on them. This was the story of Al Qaeda, made up largely of CIA-trained “freedom fighters” who turned on the US and whose leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in an Obama-ordered raid deep inside Pakistan.
But American presidents rarely learn from history: Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces in Libya and Syria has backfired. Obama’s legacy also includes millions of uprooted refugees from the states in which he intervened, especially Syria.
Stuck in the old paradigm, Obama did not seek to alter the geopolitical framework governing US foreign policy. He did not change even the Bush-era Afghanistan strategy to use aid and other inducements to prod the Pakistani military to go after the Haqqani network and get the Afghan Taliban to agree to a peace deal. With Washington clinging to a failed Pakistan policy, the longest war in US history still rages in Afghanistan.
Obama’s legacy will be defined as more war than peace. Obama embraced drone attacks with such alacrity — authorising 506 known strikes, compared to the 50 strikes under Bush — that he was dubbed “the Drone President”. By dramatically boosting US weapon exports, Obama also distinguished himself as the greatest arms exporter since World War II.
From torture and drone strikes to regime change, Obama’s troubling legal legacy mirrors Bush’s. In fact, both Obama and Bush dramatically expanded the executive branch’s power and authority in the realm of national security, including waging war.
During Obama’s tenure, as during Bush’s, the world not only became less peaceful but also America’s relative decline appeared to intensify. For example, in handling China — America’s principal long-term geopolitical rival — Obama’s policy unambiguously advertised US weakness, including allowing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to go scot free. Unlike Russia — still the top concern of the Washington elites — China sees itself as superior to the rest of the world and seeks to regain its fabled “Middle Kingdom” status.
Ominously, Obama has handed down to Trump more theatres of war than he inherited from Bush. Add to the picture the deep political polarisation in America over Trump’s election and the threat the establishment perceives from Trump’s out-of-the-box thinking on several sensitive subjects — from Russia and NATO to trade and “one China” policy.
Rarely before has a president assumed office in a major democracy with the deep state and mainstream media so unwelcoming to him. If critics succeed in crimping Trump’s presidency, Obama’s legacy will look better than the actual record.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.
The views expressed are personal