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A Realistic Assessment of Obama’s Foreign Policy, Lamenting the change that could not happen!

A Realistic Assessment of Obamas Foreign Policy

At present, the United States is in a state of disarray. Country’s economic and political elites are still trying to recapture and reproduce the Gilded Age — the final three decades of the nineteenth century which was one of the most dynamic, contentious, and volatile periods in American history — at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans is experiencing a sharp decline in standard of living as well as sharply diminishing social services with a collapsing infrastructure and loss of hope in the future. This explains the rise of political charlatans like Donald Trump who aspires to become president without even having any coherent ideology. In this respect, Hillary Clinton hardly offers a meaningful alternative to Donald Trump, whose incoherent mumblings have scared even the Republican establishment to the point that his opponent can count on measurable support, both in terms of money and votes, from traditional conservatives and many neo-conservatives.

The contemporary developments in the United States evince the fact that the once-powerful country is now faced with a profound crisis of purpose and institutional legitimacy under a neoliberal regime. Interestingly, all this is happening in less than eight years after President Obama who was elected as the 44th President of the United States after an impressive campaign that had raised hopes for a shift away from the neoconservative fallacies and imperial crimes of George W. Bush. With the November election still several months away, it would be instructive to reflect on the state of the country and the world under the Obama administration as the past always shapes and conditions the present.

While evaluating Obama’s record, right-wing critics will, of course, excoriate Obama for all the usual things—weakness against adversaries like Russia and China, negotiating with instead of subverting Cuba and Iran, eviscerating the US military, undermining relations with Israel. On the left, Obama is already being cast as another liberal leader whose actions failed to deliver on his promises, from Guantanamo to the Middle East. But in this analysis we will look at both sides of the coin in order to create a real picture of what Obama has done to his own country and to the world at large.

Let’s start with the positives which include two major victories for engagement of adversaries, and some progress on environmental issues.

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A. The Positives

1. Engagement

A Realistic Assessment of Obamas Foreign Policy 2In his historic Cuba visit in March, President Obama signalled that the Cold War in the Americas has ended and while criticizing his host country’s human rights record, he promised to pursue a policy of non-intervention.

However, engaging Iran has been quite difficult for him because some Congressmen and right-wing groups such as ‘United Against Nuclear Iran,’ etc., continue building pressure on Obama administration and US businesses to carry on the remaining sanctions and stay away from Iran. On the other hand, Iran’s economy, too, has yet to benefit significantly from the P5+1 nuclear deal. Unless liberal Democrats gain the upper hand in Congress, and President Rouhani wins next year’s election in Iran, the trade embargo on Iran will continue, jeopardizing Obama’s engagement overtures. Still, signs are that the nuclear deal is being fulfilled but US diplomacy seems not ready to capitalize on that deal by ending the trade embargo and bringing Iran into a bold Middle East peace process and especially end Iraq’s and Syria’s civil wars.

2. The Environment

On Earth Day 2016, President Obama along with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping signed the historic Paris Agreement on climate change wherein he committed that the US would reduce greenhouse gas emissions between 25 and 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. Whether or not that target can be achieved depends heavily on a Supreme Court decision that will not be handed down until well after Obama leaves office: his administrative act to curb emissions from power plants, which the Court blocked in February. Responding to environmental pressure groups, Obama has rejected the Keystone XL fracking project, imposed a three-year moratorium on coal mining on public lands, and, in a policy reversal, banned drilling along the Atlantic coast for five years.

The Negatives

1. Libya Intervention

The Middle East region remained highly volatile and the cause of peace could not advance under President Obama. Another disastrous decision he made was accepting Hillary Clinton’s advice and, without following his own inclinations, intervening in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi. It is due to unplanned and haphazard American intervention that Libya is fast becoming a failed state.

2. Wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan

Civil war in Syria too has emptied the country. Credible international reports suggest that as many as 400,000 people have died, perhaps 10 times as many have become refugees, and millions more are internally-displaced. No further military investment can make life better for the common Syrians and rebels or more rightly anti-Assad fighters. Besides Syria, the peace process in Iraq and Afghanistan has also collapsed and good governance has become no less than a distant dream. But, unfortunately, the Obama administration, instead of developing a strategy to withdraw the US troops from these countries, has announced its plans to keep more than 5,000 troops in Afghanistan into 2017 and there are all indications that a combat role in Iraq will also be resumed. Obama’s reliance on elite forces and drones may reduce US casualties, but it still amounts to intervention and avoidance of creative peacemaking.

3. Losing Midlle East Allies

The failed promise of the Arab Spring has been equalled by the US failure to find faithful partners amidst extremists. At present, the US has no reliable allies in the Arab world and the Middle East at large.

4. Supporting Anti-Democratic Forces

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the Obama administration has consistently followed the traditional American path of supporting anti-democratic regimes that thwart US policy goals but win US favour by proclaiming themselves anti-terrorism. It is merely a twist on the Cold War scenario in which the US extended support to dictatorships that trumpeted their anti-communism. Saudi Arabia’s criticism of US engagement with Iran and Syria policy has not stopped the US from providing the Saudis with intelligence and material support of a bombing campaign in Yemen. The civilian toll in death and destruction is running very high, and al-Qaeda has gained as a result. Obama’s celebrated “rebuke” of the Saudis and his urging that they accept a “cold peace” with Iran has not fundamentally altered the US-Saudi relationship, testimony to a failure of will.

US support of authoritarian, military-backed regimes extends to other countries, such as Thailand, where the military is rewriting the constitution with what the UN human rights commissioner calls “dangerously sweeping laws and order” while the economy sinks; Egypt, where the military under President Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi has practically dismantled the constitution and conducted widespread repression.

5. Patronizing Israel

Finally, Obama has proven unwilling, not just unable, to craft a new approach to Israel based on social justice and respect for human rights. Though the Netanyahu administration is very unhappy with Obama over policy in Iran and Syria, it has nothing to complain about regarding US policy toward Israel. Obama, like every president before him, will not take the crucial step of sanctioning Israel over its expansion of settlements and denial of basic rights to the Palestinians.

6. Amassing Weapons

Nothing has changed when it comes to the Pentagon slush fund. Instead of a breakthrough on creating Obama’s nuclear-free world, there is a continued development of new weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), including nearly $20 billion on nuclear weapons this year alone as part of a $1 trillion Pentagon plan for weapon-upgrading generally. That direction hardly improves prospects for reducing the nuclear danger; for example, with regard to North Korea. Why the administration has made no serious efforts to engage North Korea, a move that would also help improve relations with China, and instead keeps insisting that the DPRK must first terminate its nuclear-weapons program, defies logic.

7. Worsening Relations with Russia and China

Relations with Russia have turned opposite of the “reset” that Obama envisaged early in his first term. Of course, Russian behaviour is half the explanation — the absorption of Crimea and the intervention in Ukraine — but the other half is the needlessly provocative US behaviour along Russia’s western frontier. What has resulted is a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, characterized by three recent close encounters in the Baltic Sea, plans for a large-scale US-NATO military exercise, and a huge US military build-up in Europe that includes significant aid to countries bordering Russia. The fallout of this tension may be seen in Syria, where hopes have been dashed for a reliable US-Russia agreement that might turn a ceasefire into a lasting political solution.

With China, the relationship continues to be one of “strategic mistrust.” As with Russia, danger lurks in US and Chinese manoeuvring and posturing in and around the South China Sea. China claims sovereignty over the tiny islands and the US claims freedom of navigation, setting the stage for a confrontation as each country escalates show of force to make its point. Contentious US-China relations extend to many other issues, such as China’s military modernization, differences over trade and currency values, and most recently, a new Chinese law that restricts the activities of foreign NGOs.

Miscalculations leading to violence are entirely possible. Mutual understanding has suffered in both cases, replaced by US recourse to sanctions against Russia and warnings to China via gunship diplomacy. Predictably, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have responded in kind.

Law, Secrets and Ethics

The use of drones dramatically expanded during Obama’s tenure and with it piled the questions regarding their effectiveness and legality. It became a notion that more terrorists are created than killed by drone attacks. The same conclusion applies to Obama’s reliance on Special Forces and intelligence agents.

Also shameful is the administration’s timid response to Europe’s refugee crisis. Obama isn’t building walls, but he is only taking in a tiny number of Syrian and other refugees fleeing war that has been caused by Obama himself. The President promised to admit around 10,000 Syrians in the current fiscal year, far more than the pitifully small number in years past. Granted, the US permanently resettles more refugees per year than any other country. But the US can afford to be far more generous, and not only with Syrians, especially since US interventions abroad have contributed to the refugee crisis. It seems that election-year politics has everything to do with sharply limiting admissions from the Middle East.

Obama’s legacy on lawlessness extends to the undeclared wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq over the last eight years. At the least, he has failed to uphold his promise to support the War Powers Resolution and its 60-day requirement to seek Congressional approval of the use of force. He’s repeating the disastrous Vietnam model of incremental intervention, using Special Forces “advisers,” “trainers,” drones, and other devices in lieu of major combat forces. But the scale of involvement aside, US forces are still in combat, and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are remiss in their duties by failing to challenge the President’s succumbing to mission creep.

Obama’s tough line on whistleblowers, most notably Edward Snowden, is just the tip of the iceberg. Occasionally, his administration has surprised everyone by declassifying once-sensitive material, such as US support of Argentina’s “dirty war” against leftists during the Nixon-Kissinger era. But that was then. Coinciding with his declassification decision was a visit to Argentina that, according to human-rights activists, lent support to an authoritarian regime that has overturned various democratic reforms.

A Realistic Assessment of Obamas Foreign Policy

Conclusion

Obama’s foreign policy has been long on progressive rhetoric and, barring engagement with Iran and Cuba, short on substantive accomplishment. To be sure, more allowance are needed for the backward-looking Congress with which he has had to contend; and he should be given more than a little credit for going over its head on Iran, Cuba, and climate change. But the world had come to expect more, much more, from him, especially on issues of war and peace. After all, he was supposed to have learned from the George W. Bush years that you “don’t do stupid shit” and get yourself bogged down in hopeless foreign adventures. But he hasn’t learned. A foreign-policy legacy that includes a costly and irremediable quagmire in the Middle East as well as hostile relations with Russia, considerable contention with China, and very modest advances on climate change is not much to crow about.

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