After eight years as President of the United States of America, Barack Obama will go down in American history not only as the first black President but as the President who led the nation through the Great Recession and ensured health care for nine in ten Americans.
He will also go down as the only US President to serve two complete terms with the US at war, and as a President whose foreign policy was either idealistic, inconsequential or plain destructive.
Barack Obama’s foreign policy: An overview
For non-Americans, Obama’s domestic hits and misses are largely irrelevant. When we talk about Obama, we talk about his administration’s foreign policy.
While there is no formal ‘Obama Doctrine’ in the realm of foreign affairs, it is widely accepted that a central part of his diplomacy (on paper) has emphasised negotiation and collaboration rather than confrontation and unilateralism. The Obama Doctrine (in theory) has been criticised for being idealistic and nascent while supporters have appreciated its stark contrast with the interventionist ideology of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.
Barack Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Cuba and the monumental achievement that is the Iran Nuclear Deal will be remembered as his foreign policy’s crowning achievements. Other policies that will be lauded are his efforts to broker the historic Paris Agreement and his denouncing of the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is a two-centuries-old US policy of maintaining US hegemony over North and South America by distancing European powers from the region and, at times, forcibly installing pro-US regimes in the region even if it meant installing dictators or rigging elections.
However, Obama’s foreign policy during both his terms have been riddled with insecurity and indecision. His administration escalated drone warfare, supported non-State actors in many parts of the Middle-east, increased a civil war in Libya, and remained numb against a resurgent and aggressive Russia as it invaded eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and carried out cyber attacks around the world.
Both Secretaries of State under Obama – Hillary Clinton and John Kerry – are guilty of a mishandled response to the Arab Spring. This is especially true when it comes to Syria. Anti-Government protests escalated into a full-blown civil war before evolving into a proxy war involving several international players including the US, Russia, and Turkey. At the same time, a new terrorist group in the form of the Islamic State conquered large swathes of territory while committing gross human rights violations.
This, even as a refugee crisis rocketed and suffered against a disproportionate international response.
In 2008, Obama ran on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Middle-east. To his credit, he ended the war in Iraq and significantly reduced American presence in Afghanistan.
However, his escalation of drone warfare, particularly in Yemen and Pakistan has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights groups. He authorised ten times more drone strikes than his predecessor and followed what has rightly been condemned as an incredibly flawed drone policy which often makes no distinction between civilians and targets.
An escalation in foreign involvement and violence
The 2008 candidate for President who endorsed multilateralism and condemned interventionism led a Presidency which increased global special operators by 130%. Today, US Special Operations Forces can be found in 70% of the world’s nations.
A report by The Guardian revealed that the Obama administration (in 2016 alone) dropped at least 26,171 bombs. This means that every day of 2016, the US military blasted combatants or civilians overseas with 72 bombs.
That’s three bombs every hour, 24 hours a day.
Obama managed to kill Osama bin Laden and end US involvement in the Iraq War – only to increase US involvement in Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, and Syria, and (re)introduce US involvement in Iraq, Pakistan, Mali, and Somalia. Meanwhile, he oversaw the dampening of relations between his country and Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.
Gitmo and Snowden
Obama’s contributions – direct or indirect – to the escalation of violence in the Middle-east are dire and damning. But failure to fix the Middle-east is not the only major failure of Obama’s foreign policy. He has repeatedly failed to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp (informally referred to as ‘Gitmo’) – one of the biggest stains in the United States’ human rights record.
The diplomatic fallout that followed the disclosure of the mass surveillance programmes carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA) shook the tectonics of international diplomacy. Obama was criticised not only for spying on US citizens and global leaders but also for his failure at ending the surveillance programmes. At the same time, Obama has continually rejected calls to pardon Snowden, who remains in an asylum in Russia. The NSA surveillance and his denying Snowden a pardon – both go seriously against Obama’s platform as a liberal leader.
Obama’s foreign policy legacy in the Trump Era
Before I conclude, I would be remiss if Donald Trump was not mentioned. On 20 January, Trump will succeed Obama to become the 45th President of the United States. Trump will lead the US and NATO, be in control of 4500 nuclear warheads, and hold significant international clout simply because of the power of his office.
Donald Trump is unpredictable and thoroughly inexperienced when it comes to foreign policy. He has said he is comfortable with Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons, does not mind a renewed weapons race, has already soured China-US relations, and has nominated an oil magnate and businessman with zero diplomatic experience as Secretary of State (Rex Tillerson). At the same time, he has questionable business interests in many countries including Russia and has indicated indifference to both the possibility of trade wars and multinational trade treaties like NAFTA and TPP.
Donald Trump is going to inherit the massive – and flawed – US foreign policy machine at a crucial crossroad in world history. Everything is a game now. As the Executive Director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation Trevor Timm wrote, “Obama has handed a surveillance state and war machine to a maniac.”
The historic nature of the Obama Presidency is incontrovertible. Barack Obama has to his credit many achievements in both domestic and international spheres. However, history will highlight Obama’s misses over his hits – at least in the realm of foreign policy.