In the volatile Middle East the US has a limited ability to influence events when rich Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar can provide their neighbours both money and sophisticated weapons
Make no mistake: Barack Obama is going to go down in history as one of the great American presidents. At home he has confronted poverty, ill-health, racism, gun laws, unemployment, immigration and the criminal justice system with amazing tenacity, sometimes to great effect, even though the Republicans have fought him tooth and nail over every attempt at reform. The economy is striding along, shaming Europe. Abroad he has had to struggle on multiple fronts, more than any other recent president. There are problems, especially in the Middle East, that would — and will — defeat any president. But there is a clear narrative running through Obama’s foreign policy, one that makes a lot of sense. What is most clear is the honouring of the commitment he made in his Nobel Peace Prize speech at the onset of his presidency to lowering the US’ propensity to use its military might.
His presidency began with his attempt to get relations with Russia back on an even keel. A good deal was made with President Vladimir Putin on further mutual reductions in nuclear arms. He concluded the withdrawal of the majority of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (170,000 down to 1,000 in Iraq and 100,000 down to 10,000 in Afghanistan). Later came his frustrating (and frustrated) effort to help the Arab Spring along. He navigated its perilous air currents when it went wrong and faced up to the Syrian civil war and the appearance of Islamic State (IS). But the fact is that in the volatile Middle East the US has a limited ability to influence events when rich Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Qatar can provide their neighbours both money and sophisticated weapons. He continued with successful diplomacy that led to the recognition of Cuba and to severely limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Along the way, the UN’s peacekeeping arm was significantly strengthened and a civilised discourse with China was pursued, despite tension over islands in the South and East China seas.
The mistakes are there for all to see: going into Libya along with the Europeans, nearly going into Syria and a poor sense of fine-tuning in the first days of the Arab Spring. But the commitment made in Oslo shines through most of the time. I take three of the main issues:
Syria: when General David Petraeus was the CIA chief, he, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta tried to persuade Obama to ship in small arms to selected groups of the Syrian opposition. Obama asked the CIA to produce a paper on how often in the past US arms had succeeded in helping rebels oust hostile governments. The answer: not very often. That confirmed Obama’s doubts.
Unfortunately, two years later, Obama was seriously tempted to send in the military. In the end he had to do a public somersault, despite his staff egging him on to bomb. The Pentagon had warned him that if he began bombing he should be prepared for escalation. He looked indecisive and uncertain, a label that critics have unfairly tied firmly round his neck. This time he was uncertain but mostly, if we are honest, he is not. But he learnt his lesson with the Syria decision: he should stay true to his fundamental beliefs and not listen to the powerful shout from both outside and within his administration of “Do something and do it now.” He is unlikely to return to the ‘bomb Syria’ option. Even with Russia entering the fray he has told his colleagues not to look at Russia’s actions through a Cold War prism.
Islamic State (IS): he has had no compunction or second thoughts about bombing IS, the ultra-fundamentalist Sunni movement, which emerged only in 2014, the bastard child of the Iraq war. In my opinion, there are less violent ways of combatting IS successfully, nevertheless Obama has had good cause in the “just war” theory for what he is doing. Sensibly in Vienna the US is talking to both Russia and Iran about what to do with both Syria and IS.
Ukraine: Obama and the European leaders made serious early mistakes, showing a lack of flexibility in dealing with Russia’s age-long economic interests in Ukraine. They got drawn into supporting violent neo-fascist demonstrators (who mingled among the non-violent ones), who successfully upset the political apple cart with the deposing of President Viktor Yankovych. But the subsequent Russian take-over of Crimea and Russian military support for the eastern and southern rebels have been dealt with cool calculation. Despite some wild talk in NATO’s HQ about a Russian invasion of Ukraine, no large numbers of Russian troops have appeared and no serious weapons have been sent by the west to the Ukrainian army. Today, Ukraine is being hung out to dry by both Obama and Putin until it gets its economy in order and parliament passes the necessary devolution acts, giving the east and the south a good measure of self-governance.
At some point in the last 12 months of his presidency Obama will find a way to forge a reconciliation with Putin. The Iranian nuclear success brought them together. IS is doing it again. It would not surprise me if they find their way to a new round of nuclear weapons’ cuts.
Will Obama leave the world better than he found it? Partly yes, partly no. There is less American military intervention. The number of ‘boots on the ground’ is very small. But in total there are more serious problems than there were seven years ago, none of them his making. A successor will find it very hard to do better and will probably do worse.
The writer has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org