NEW DELHI – What is the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize not for his accomplishments as U.S. president but for the expectations that his presidency 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 even many of his supporters believe, as Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad has written in his memoir, that the Nobel prize to him was “a mistake.” The Nobel committee awarded Obama the prize less than nine months after he assumed office in the hope that he would be fundamentally different from President George W. Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq created a failed state.
The paradox is that 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 U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism.
Obama championed “a nuclear-free world” only to quietly pursue an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most sophisticated.
Indeed, if one disregards his softer tone in comparison with Bush’s strident rhetoric, Obama’s record shows him to be even more interventionist than Bush. Last year, for example, the United States, according to an analysis of military data, 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 United Nations 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 U.N. or U.S. congressional authorization 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 terrorist attacks.
The 2011 U.S.-led operation against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi began as a supposed humanitarian mission, only to quickly turn into a regime-change exercise, whose success quickly bred chaos and mayhem in Libya. Although goaded into the Libyan operation by his hawkish secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, Obama will be remembered in history for demolishing Libya in the same way that Bush unraveled 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 organization in modern history — Islamic State — which still controls large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq even 29 months after Obama began an air war against it. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has admitted, the Obama team viewed the rise of IS as a possibly useful development to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to see it grow into a monster.
Flush with his success in overthrowing Gadhafi — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi city and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to toppling Assad. The main IS force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded “moderate” rebels who crossed over with their weapons to the hydra-headed group.
The rise of IS represented just the latest example of how successive U.S. presidents since the 1980s have been fighting the consequences of their own shortsighted policies. The U.S. has first trained and armed nonstate 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-Qaida, made up largely of CIA-trained “freedom fighters” who, led by Osama bin Laden, turned on the U.S.
U.S. presidents, however, rarely learn from history, one of whose lessons is that the U.S. possesses, as one U.S. analyst has said, “the reverse Midas Touch” — whatever it touches “turns to mayhem.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces to topple Gadhafi has badly backfired, destabilizing not just Libya but also some other states in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Obama’s legacy also includes millions of uprooted Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi refugees, many of whom have flocked to Europe.
Stuck in the old paradigm, Obama did not seek to alter the geopolitical framework governing U.S. foreign policy. For example, to save America’s long-standing alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs, the Obama administration helped the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, to ride out the Arab Spring.
Obama did not change even the Bush-era Afghanistan strategy to use inducements — from billions of dollars in aid to the supply of lethal weapons — 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 U.S. history still rages in Afghanistan.
Obama’s legacy will clearly be defined as more war than peace. Obama embraced drone attacks with such alacrity — authorizing 506 known strikes, compared with the 50 strikes under Bush — that he was dubbed “the drone president.” By dramatically boosting U.S. 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, however, is no different than 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 unmistakably advertised U.S. weakness, including allowing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to go scot-free.
Unlike Russia, which despite its continued decline has remained 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 theaters of war than he inherited from Bush. Add to the picture the deep political polarization 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 the “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.