As President Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House have come to an end and Donald J. Trump has entered the Oval Office as the 45th President of the United States of America, it’s time to write the first draft of history about Obama’s time in the White House and the legacy he leaves behind.
In 2009, Obama entered the White House, after a “Yes We Can” campaign, with lofty promises of changing the United States of America. He was sworn in amidst the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s and America’s almost abiding wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Nonetheless, on the domestic front, he used the power of his office, working with Congress or without it, to enact sweeping changes affecting healthcare, immigration enforcement, student loans, financial services and energy. Overseas, he negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and agreed to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and during his time in office, the world saw the rise of the Islamic State.
Mr Obama is perhaps, the first two-term American president to have presided over war every day of his tenure in office. He bequeaths to Trump ongoing operations in Afghanistan, continuing drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, the consequences of the 2011 destruction of Libya, the instigation of civil war in Syria, US sponsorship of the Saudi interventions in Yemen, and the civil conflicts in Ukraine, the Caucuses and across Africa.
If one were to assess President Obama’s global leadership in the past eight years in absolute terms, the scorecard will not be impressive enough to keep him on the pedestal of peacemakers or group him together with Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter—men who were widely regarded as peace presidents. But, in relative terms, Obama’s global leadership role is certainly better than that of his predecessor George W. Bush, but to what extent he is better is debatable.
Also given his successor’s outrageous policies, the shine on Obama’s presidency is likely to last for many years to come.
Obama’s election victory in 2008 was seen as bringing down the racial barriers in US politics. Many shed tears of joy, unable to believe that the dream of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had finally come true. Yet it was during his presidency that the Afro-Americans faced more hate attacks, giving rise to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
His election victory came on a seemingly anti-war platform and generated hope worldwide. The Nobel Committee could not wait longer to accord him the 2009 Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” The Committee, which, for the first time in the Nobel Peace Prize history, chose a winner based on words instead of deeds, attached special importance to Obama’s vision of, and work for, a world without nuclear weapons.
But, he handed over to Trump a war baton. The Nobel Committee might as well ask him to return the peace medal, for the committee, which made the blunder, won’t be able to cite his peace record in vindication of its decision.
Far from being an anti-war president, Obama goes into history as another war president. He opposed Bush’s wars not because he saw war as evil, but because he saw them as rash wars and dumb wars.
“What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by [neocon officials] to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne,” he said when he was a state Senator.
Obama ended his two-term presidency with unfinished wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. True, they were not wars he started, but they are yet to end. He set a December 2016 deadline to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, but in July 2016, claiming that the security situation in Afghanistan was “precarious,” he said some 8,400 US troops would remain there and his successor could determine the next move.
A week before Christmas five years ago, Obama announced that the “war in Iraq ends this month”. But 5,000 US troops are taking part in military activities in the fight against terror outfit ISIS in Iraq. In addition, more than 5,000 security personnel are attached to the US embassy in Baghdad.
If these were Bush’s rash and dumb wars, there are Obama wars. The war against Libya and the bloody mayhem that followed were Obama’s legacies. As regards Syria, where more than 300 US troops are engaged in the fight against ISIS, Obama, however, defied calls from allies such as Britain, France and Saudi Arabia to use the full force of the US military to oust Bashar al-Assad. His reluctance was not due to any love for Assad or any desire to regain his lost anti-war credentials but because of fears that Islamic extremists would take over the country if Assad was removed.
Obama also continued the war on terror with as much vigour as Bush prosecuted it. His biggest war trophy was the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a raid by US special troops on a hideout in Abbotabad, Pakistan. This helped him win his second term. He dumped his commitment to uphold human rights in the White House storeroom, to be taken out and held high only when hostile or not-so friendly nations violate human rights. He approved drone attacks that killed thousands of civilians, including children, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and other places. He also endorsed extra-judicial killings in the name of national security, lending credence to the allegation that the US adopts double standards and politicises human rights.
His biggest setback was not his failure to end America’s dirty wars or close down the Gulag-like prison in Guantanamo Bay. Rather, it was his failure to bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a way, Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 was baptized by Palestinian blood. It took place two days after Israel’s month-long attacks on Gaza ended. Aleppo pales into insignificance in comparison to the suffering of Palestinians during Israel’s 2009 Gaza war, which evoked little or no condemnation from the West though some 800 Palestinian children perished.
Upon assuming office, Obama gave hope to the suffering Palestinians. In June 2009, Obama, in a speech that was seen as a fresh attempt to reach out to the Muslim world, urged Israel to stop settlement building activities in occupied Palestine, while he also urged the Muslims to shun extremism, adopt democracy and respect human rights and women’s rights.
His efforts to help Palestinians to achieve statehood were no political circus. Obama made Middle East peace a centrepiece of his foreign policy—an audacious political gamble in the face of Israel’s non-cooperation. During his second term, in a last-ditch effort, he sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the region with a mission to achieve peace before an April 29, 2014 deadline. But the mission collapsed, largely due to hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence and also due to the lack of political chemistry between Obama and Israeli leaders. Israel paid no heed to Obama’s repeated calls that it should stop building settlements in occupied Palestine. Yet, during his last year in office he signed a US $38 billion aid package for Israel, displaying his inability to resist the Israeli lobby.
As Obama leaves office, the Palestinians face the prospect of war because Trump has picked as ambassador to Israel his bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, who supports Israel’s illegal settlements and, like Trump, advocates that the US should shift its embassy to Jerusalem in occupied Palestine. But Obama proved he was no pushover with regard to China and Russia. He devised a Pivot-to-Asia policy to contain China, just as the US tried to contain the Soviet Union’s growing influence in Asia during the Cold War. As part of his economic warfare to isolate China, Obama also floated an economic grouping called Trans-Pacific Partnership. His successor has vowed to dismantle the grouping.
As regards Russia, he renewed contacts on a positive note, which saw the two countries signing agreements on nuclear disarmament. But Russia’s wars in Georgia and Ukraine together with its support for Assad on the one hand, and Nato’s eastward expansion and its role in the Ukrainian coup, on the other, saw relations between the two big powers plummeting to an all-time low since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
Criticism apart, on a positive note, Obama, hailed as the no-scandal president, can keep his Nobel peace medal, because of his support for the climate change treaty, his moves to normalise relations with Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran.