With only eighteen months remaining, Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy will be much debated after he leaves the White House. Excluding our crackpots and bigots, historians, memoirists and biographers will surely take into account the challenges he faced because of the two wars he inherited – one of which, Afghanistan, he always supported.
Even so, as we faced the rest of the world, Obama was going to be different, or so we hoped. The hundreds of thousands who joyously hailed him in Grant Park and the 1.5 million who turned out for his first inauguration were ecstatic with anticipation. The policies of the past were dead and gone. Or so we innocents thought.
While Obama Care and his TPP trade pact may or may not prove significant in any future assessment, his final legacy will certainly be based more on what he does and doesn’t do about the Middle East, Iran, China and Russia. Obama once told reporters in the summer of 2014 that his guiding principle was "Don’t do stupid shit," a lesson that he seemed to have taken to heart when he tried dealing rationally with Iran despite Israel and its American acolytes’ fierce opposition, and with Cuba, ignoring the fevered disapproval by unforgiving Florida-based Cuban émigrés.
All the same, dovish and disillusioned liberals and leftists have lately begun scrutinizing Obama’s record. David Bromwich’s recent judicious Harpers‘ piece, "What Went Wrong: Assessing Obama’s Legacy" put it this way: "Much as one would like to admire a leader so good at showing that he means well, and so earnest in projecting the good intentions of his country as the equivalent of his own, it would be a false consolation to pretend that the years of the Obama presidency have not been a large lost chance."
Even more critical is Sherle Schwenniger’s essay in The Nation: "How Obama Went From Being a Peace Candidate to a War President." How? By listening to the people who promoted the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and who now "finds himself pursuing an open-ended war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), prosecuting an expanded counter-terrorism campaign from Central Asia to North Africa, overseeing a new Cold War with Russia, and pivoting toward what could become one with China in East Asia."
Why his eagerness to pass TPP, The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an integral part of his "pivot to Asia" policy aimed directly at China? Why his support for the war against Libya, which has proved to be a Pyrrhic victory at best? Why the new obsession with setting up "lily pads", a string of U.S. bases manned by troops and ‘trainers" which hadn’t worked when it was tried in Afghanistan? If Ronald Reagan, who knew little or nothing about foreign policy, found the courage and brains to warm up to Gorbachev at Reykjavik (and infuriate the neocons) and help cool off the still-simmering embers of the Cold War. Even Nixon (and Kissinger) went to China.
And then there’s a nuanced view in the forthcoming WorldMaking: The Art & Science of American Diplomacy by British historian David Milne. Drawing approvingly on James Kloppenburg’s Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope & the American Political Tradition, and, by extension, William James’s pragmatism. Obama, Milne and Kloppenburg believe, is a pragmatist, a man without dogma and doctrine, which can be interpreted as Obama the disorganized plodder or Obama the grounded realist.
So what happened? Barack Obama happened. More eloquence than substance happened. More political caution than audacity or hope. Convinced that it was best to govern from some ill-defined center and make nice to his many haters while acting tough abroad to keep the home front warriors off his back while throwing an occasional bone to his left. Has he endangered everyone now and in future years by renewing the Cold War with nuclear Russia and threatening nuclear China with his "pivot to Asia"? What are we to make of his approval for the current war games with Latvia where B-52s have unloaded ersatz bombs less than 200 miles from the Russian frontier, sent all those costly war toys to Baltic and Eastern European states eager to provoke U.S. involvement in a fight with their former masters, and where American and Russian planes lately flew within ten feet of each other. Sarajevo, anyone?
To all these, and to the State Department’s inflammatory moves in Ukraine and the Pentagon’s in Russia’s backyard, Obama seems both approving and absent. Who in 2008, exhilarated by his election, would have, could have, believed that their assumed savior would turn hawkish?
Did Obama have any alternatives? Did he really have to continue the American obsession to intervene everywhere and anywhere? "Demilitarizing the Military," an illuminating essay by Gregory D. Foster of the National Defense University in Washington, recommends – at least it does to me – that when Obama arrived, "a unique historical opportunity" had presented itself. But "preparing for a waging war," writes Foster, "can no longer – if it ever could – produce true peace. Warmaking is capable only of producing more war…Today there is no possibility of victory."
Yes, there were alternatives, especially when the Democrats took control of Congress in 2010. In this huge nation of ours couldn’t he find a handful of realists, left, right, and center, to supply some new and potentially workable approaches to break the send-in-the-troops craziness? Why did his very tight and shrinking circle of advisors initiate the attack on Putin (backed strenuously by the NY Times‘ influential editorial board and most of our unquestioning media) while encouraging and subsidizing NATO to move ever closer to a Russia historically obsessed with the defense of its borders and fierce opposition to foreign encirclement? Even the Putin-loathing Thomas Friedman has asked "When did it all go sour?" and answering, "When we [the two Bushes and Bill Clinton, with few or no objections] fired the first shot when we expanded NATO toward the Russian border even though the Soviet Union had disappeared." Why the sudden, swift Obamian support for a Ukrainian coup backed by, among others, Ukrainian neo-Nazi groups and which ousted a corrupt, bankrupt, democratically-elected president for an equally corrupt and bankrupt crowd? Why his silence (and John Kerry’s too) about the provocative actions in Ukraine of some State Department neocons? Why the concerted effort to surround Russia (and China) with military bases and military exercises? Would we accept Russian-Venezuelan-Cuban war games in the Gulf of Mexico or Caribbean?
George Kennan and Henry Kissinger – yes, Henry Kissinger despite all! – wisely and realistically warned that Ukraine should never be tied to NATO, unless we’re prepared to fight a nuclear war. And on occasions, the Metternichian Kissinger understands the heart of the issue: "Demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one," adding, "Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what is what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries….The U.S. needs to avoid treating Russia as an aberrant to be patiently taught rules of conduct established by Washington…. Leaders on all sides should return to examining outcomes, not compete in posturing… "We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction." That’s diplomatic talk, not the confrontational sort favored by Washington’s warriors.
After almost seven years of Obama’s presidency, and through the remainder of his term, we remain an empire of military colonization, what Tom Engelhardt smartly dubbed "The Theology of American National Security," or American Exceptionalism’s delusion that militarism and lots of dead American troops are the price the children and grandchildren of ordinary people have to pay for worldwide supremacy.
I like best what Andrew Bacevich, former West Pointer, Vietnam War colonel,
retired Boston University professor of International Relations, and father of
a son killed in Iraq, who said, memorably, "leadership ought to mean something
other than repeating and compounding past mistakes. It ought to require more
than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed. To remain willfully blind
to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness." An historic American
tradition, which, sadly, has continued during Barack Obama’s presidency. And
just as sadly, we no longer have a viable antiwar movement.
Murray Polner wrote No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Disarmed & Dangerous, a dual biography of Daniel & Philip Berrigan (with Jim’O’Grady), and We Who Dared Say No To War (with Thomas Woods Jr.).