What is the final verdict on Obama's foreign policy record?

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15 December
12:36
December
2016

It’s such a mixed issue. He looked for stable relationships, he looked for relationships which would provide economic recovery, that would reduce tension. His big watchword in 2009 was ‘engagement’, as opposed to the confrontation of the Bush years. He talked about reconciling values and security, and if you look at many areas of the world, I’d say that he fulfilled that idea. For example with China. We have issues like China’s human rights record, but Obama basically said, we’re going to focus on rebuilding political and economic ties with China. We’re not going to go for this competitive confrontation. That’s definitely a stable position, with the by-product of better relations with China when dealing with North Korea – because China is going to be a broker in that situation. 

"In foreign policy you don’t get judged on the singular successes, but you quite often get judged by the singular failure. And Obama has a series of problems which have not really been dealt with effectively."

If you look at relations with Latin America, the Bush administration had gone hell for leather to try and destabilise things, for example by trying to knock off Chavez in Venezuela. Obama took a much more sensible approach of engagement with Latin American countries, and not condemning centre-left or even leftist governments – and that culminates in the idea that there will be diplomatic relations with Cuba, which is a huge symbolic step after 60 years of America trying to overthrow that country’s government, or break it economically. 

In foreign policy you don’t get judged on the singular successes, but you quite often get judged by the singular failure. And Obama has a series of problems which have not really been dealt with effectively, in part because they’re difficult cases, in part because his nature to be cautious and even at times indecisive has not served him well. 

Primarily, this means the Middle East, starting in 2009, when Obama did not deal effectively with the Israel/Palestine issue, and then gets bounced around by Netanyahu really for the next eight years. In Iraq, Obama gets bounced around by his own military, telling him he can’t withdraw, and by al-Maliki telling him he has to withdraw. And nobody really dealt with the fundamental political issues that were there. 

"Iraq is a big case, and the rise of Islamic State is something you can’t blame on Obama, as some have tried to do. But beyond Iraq, Syria is going to be the catastrophe that’s going to mark him."

Now, Iraq is a big case, and the rise of Islamic State is something you can’t blame on Obama, as some have tried to do. But beyond Iraq, Syria is going to be the catastrophe that’s going to mark him. Getting the nuclear issue with Iran out of the way was a success. I’ve got no problem with the idea of realising that Iran was not on the verge of a bomb, and that it was poisoning America’s approach to so many other issues. The problem is that in many ways the nuclear issue was a pawn for other ideas about power, and about trying to extend power. And one of those areas where Iran is trying to extend power, or at least maintain it, is in Syria, which is why it is backing Assad. 

I think it’s unfair to accuse Obama of allying with Iran, as some of his conservative critics have said, but I would say he has dropped the ball by walking away from the Syrian conflict, and using the diversion of Islamic State to not deal with the fundamental issues. As a result, Iran is part of the situation. As is Russia. In principle, the idea of resetting relations with Russia – you might remember Hillary Clinton with her big red button – is fine. 

"Russia... coming up with this very elaborate propaganda campaign which is simply one of the most organised attempts, ever, to reframe the presentation of what is happening in international relations, by blaming everything on the imperialist west."

The problem is when Russia starts to push, and push hard, to extend its sphere of influence, if you don’t push back, they’re going to keep testing you further and further. So Russia was extremely concerned when the Yanukovych government – which was corrupt, and widely disliked – fell in Ukraine. And they blamed the west for toppling him, and they hit back hard, annexing Crimea and encouraging the separatist movement, and supplying the weapons that shot down a Malaysian airliner. And beyond all of that, coming up with this very elaborate propaganda campaign which is simply one of the most organised attempts, ever, to reframe the presentation of what is happening in international relations, by blaming everything on the imperialist west. And if you do not deal with this, at all levels – a firm line politically, economically, and in the presentation of your information – this will continue. 

So Obama leaves a huge question mark about the future of American policy. On the one hand, you don’t go back to the Cold War era, returning us to the brink of armed conflict. On the other, simply believing that you will have rapprochement, and that you do not have to take a firm line, is not going to pay off in the long run. 

"At best, he’ll be remembered as very, very flawed. At worst, a failure. And there may be more shocks to come."

He won’t be remembered as a successful foreign policy president. You don’t get judged on the individual chapters. You get judged on the headline. In the individual chapters if this story, there’s a great deal to be said in terms of global economic relations especially. But the headline – what he’ll be remembered for – will be a Middle East far more unsettled now than at any point since World War II. At best, he’ll be remembered as very, very flawed. At worst, a failure. And there may be more shocks to come.

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