Global Affairs

Report card on Obama's foreign policy legacy

On the fight against terrorism, nuclear policy and the Asia pivot, US President Barack Obama's record is decidedly mixed

LONDON • United States President Barack Obama passionately believes that his decision to keep the US military out of conflicts around the world should be regarded as the biggest achievement of his presidency.

But when he recently delivered the final set-piece foreign policy speech of his administration, Mr Obama chose to do so at a huge US air force base in Florida; obviously, the peace leader still likes using the men and women of war as backdrop symbols of his authority.

But no carefully choreographed event can gloss over the fact that Mr Obama's record in foreign and security policies will remain deeply controversial and is guaranteed to be picked apart by future historians.

Some may come to view him as merely a product of his age, a president racked by self-doubts just as much as his people were. Other historians will be harsher on Mr Obama's foreign policy record.

Be that as it may, the man who got the Nobel Peace Prize before he actually did anything will spend the rest of his life trying to justify his suitability for that award.

No foreign policy agenda conceived during an electoral campaign survives contact with reality, and no US president is immune from the vagaries of events he cannot predict or control.


The man who got the Nobel Peace Prize before he actually did anything will spend the rest of his life trying to justify his suitability for that award. No foreign policy agenda conceived during an electoral campaign survives contact with reality, and no US president is immune from the vagaries of events he cannot predict or control.

Mr Obama genuinely believed that he can give Americans rest from foreign wars, reduce if not eliminate nuclear weapons, close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, put relations with China on a better footing and "reset" those with Russia, as well as change the entire approach to fighting terrorism.

It is not his fault that the Middle East tore itself apart under his presidency. It is not Mr Obama but the US Congress which should be blamed for the fact that the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities continue to operate. And if relations with China are not better and those with Russia considerably worse, he can hardly be exclusively blamed for either of these trends.

Overall, the US President was undoubtedly right when he remarked that although Americans "have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders", that should not be translated into the constant deployment of US soldiers; "just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail", Mr Obama once famously, and correctly, remarked.


Nevertheless, Mr Obama is directly responsible for some pretty substantial foreign policy setbacks. The first concerns America's overall approach to terrorism. As the President said in his farewell foreign policy speech, one of the biggest mistakes America's future leaders can make is to exaggerate the problem, for the terrorists can never defeat the US, but the fight against them, if taken to extremes, can undermine the very foundations of societies by making all of us more violent and intolerant.

Perhaps, but that glosses over Mr Obama's own failures in fighting terrorism. In its rush to get out of Iraq, the US administration did not notice the country's disintegration and was surprised by the rise of the so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation. In its determination to use drones as instruments of targeted assassination of terrorist leaders, the Obama White House neglected dealing with terrorism's underlining causes; there are more failed states capable of breeding more terrorists than ever before.


And despite Mr Obama's conscious desire to limit the US role in the Middle East, anti-American feelings throughout the region are actually growing. It may be hard to think how another American president would have done better in dealing with terrorism, a challenge which is not amenable to one solution.

But it's equally hard to think of a US president who would have done much worse than Mr Obama. The fact that, whenever asked to defend his record on terrorism, Mr Obama falls back on boasting about how Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was caught and killed under his watch is not an indication of strength, but an admission of weakness.

The Obama administration's record on nuclear questions is not much better. The President is rightly proud of his personal involvement in the secret diplomacy which led to a nuclear deal; that almost certainly averted an Israeli-Iranian showdown, with catastrophic consequences. The snag is that the deal does nothing to fight nuclear proliferation.

To start with, the US-Iranian agreement explicitly ignored Iran's conventional military capabilities, and Iran's destabilising activities throughout the Middle East. So, instead of addressing the quest for nuclear weapons as part of broader security concerns, the Obama administration pretended that nuclear weapons are in a category all of their own, a doomed approach which has already failed in Mr Obama's dealings with the Russians, who rejected further nuclear cuts since in Russia's case nuclear bombs compensate for the country's conventional weapons inferiority.

And while the Obama White House concentrated on Iran, it did nothing about North Korea; America's policy of "strategic patience" with Pyongyang was really just a fancy name for strategic blindness, a desperate effort to pretend not to notice what is happening in North Korea. The result is that Mr Obama leaves power with his denuclearisation project in tatters; China, Russia, India and Pakistan, to name but a few nations, are now modernising and expanding their nuclear arsenals, while North Korea may soon acquire a capability to hit US territory.

Mr Obama's name will always be associated with the "pivot" to Asia, a tilt for which he deserves credit, and which arguably should have been implemented at least a decade before. However, the Obama rebalancing decision was initially taken for budgetary reasons rather than strategic foresight, and was poorly explained to America's allies in both Asia and Europe.

Furthermore, Mr Obama never quite seemed to accept that the pivot can only be credible if America is able to show that it stands ready to escalate its involvement against anyone challenging its obligations as a security guarantor in Asia.


Yet the most intractable challenges with Mr Obama's foreign and security policies are those which are largely unseen, although they are destined to create further difficulties in years to come.

The first consists of the President's determination to concentrate all decision-making in the White House and micromanage diplomacy from there. That not only marginalised the State Department, but also created a whole generation of frustrated officials, people who knew that the US can do better, but also knew that the White House was unprepared to consider any alternatives. This sterile atmosphere looks set to continue in the incoming administration.

A second problem arises out of Mr Obama's disdain of working with Congress, which reached its nadir in the US-Iran nuclear deal, a document which is not a treaty since Mr Obama knew that it won't ever be ratified by legislators. The result is not only a seemingly never-ending stream of half-truth revelations and innuendos about what has or has not been promised to Iran as part of the deal, but also an opening for President-elect Donald Trump to run roughshod through the US Constitution in similar ways.

Those who hailed Mr Obama's ability to bypass Congress on Iran would be well-advised to shut up when President Trump uses the same powers to do as he pleases with global trade and other diplomatic arrangements.

Ultimately, Mr Obama's biggest problem may well be that he never properly understood just how special the nation he heads remains for the rest of the world. He still refuses to accept that when he drew a "red line" on Syria and threatened military strikes against those who defied his warnings, he could not just back-pedal on the threat without this having severe consequences on America's reputation.

Nor did Mr Obama seem to understand that his infamously reduced philosophy of global American power, which allegedly consists of just "don't do stupid sh*t" (helpfully translated by his associates as "don't do stupid stuff"), could result in both doing nothing, and in this being particularly stupid.

It is a shame that the legacy of a superbly talented man who trailblazed for African-Americans and many other disposed in his country would end up being in such jeopardy after the US electorate rejected his party to vote in a man expected to overturn many of his policies.

And it is a pity that the man who promised in his first presidential inauguration speech "to reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals" now leaves his nation without stronger ideals and not much safer either.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Report card on Obama's foreign policy legacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe