History’s harsh lens on Barack Obama
Outgoing US President Barack Obama’s misses and their consequences will be with us for a long time
As he enters his final week in the White House, it must give Barack Obama great satisfaction that so many Americans wish they could extend his lease on the property by four years more. The US President has himself said, in a moment of rare braggadocio, that if the rules didn’t proscribe a third term, he would have won last November’s election. His approval ratings are extraordinarily high for any departing President, despite the extreme political polarization and socio-economic divisiveness that characterized his term. Even before he has formally left, America is already missing its 44th President.
Much of this anticipatory nostalgia is down to the identity and character of the 45th President. The nearer Donald Trump’s inauguration approaches, the more appealing Obama seems to get. I’m reminded of something an Iraqi sheikh once told me, in a different context: “When you’re looking out to the desert from an oasis, it doesn’t matter that the trees above you have no fruit, and the pond behind you is muddy… the oasis still feels like paradise.”
There’s a certain symmetry to Obama’s presidency ending with favourable comparisons to the one to come, since it had begun with favorable comparisons to the one just past. The heady optimism that attended his inauguration, on 20 January, 2009, was informed in great part by a sense of relief that George W. Bush was finally gone. I arrived in Washington the very next day, to take up an assignment as the national security correspondent for Time Magazine, and practically everyone I met in the first few weeks was glad to be rid of Bush. If Trump had been elected that year, many of my interlocutors would have been looking back on the Bush years in the way that sheikh might view a threadbare oasis.
Obama is, in this sense, lucky to have followed one of the most incompetent of all American Presidents, and to be followed by the most incomprehensible of them. This will color, in mostly rosy hues, our view of his presidency for years to come. If Trump’s turn at the wheel is as disastrous as his critics fear, it may be decades before the Obama years receive unaffected examination.
When dispassionate history gets around to training its long lens on the Obama presidency, the picture will be more red than rosy. This will especially be true of his record in foreign affairs, which is stained in the blood of hundreds of thousands of innocents, and blackened by the betrayal of America’s allies and ideals. Future generations may allow that some of his sins were of omission rather than commission —whereas Bush’s were the other way around—but even so they will not, I suspect, let him too far off the hook.
Looking back, they will hold Obama to account for the ghastly tragedy that is Syria: his myriad excuses for not getting more involved — chief among them that the United States was gun-shy after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — will not stand the test of time. Leaders are meant to take unpopular decisions, and then persuade their people of their necessity. It will be noted that he never even tried. Scholars will conjure up counterfactuals: how different might things have been if Obama had either stood aside from the beginning and allowed Bashar al-Assad to mow down his people; or, having allowed the pro-democracy uprising to believe America had their back, given them political or military cover (or both) to fight back against their oppressor.
Where Obama did try, in Libya, history will note that he did the barest minimum — providing some air support for the brave revolutionaries fighting the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi — but then quickly distanced himself from the aftermath, leaving the country in tatters. When things got really difficult on the ground, the President who had cheered on the uprising was nowhere to be seen.
In both Syria and Libya, historians will conclude, Obama’s inaction helped open up space for the so-called Islamic State (IS), and other terrorist groups, to operate. It also contributed to a refugee crisis that, in addition to the humanitarian catastrophe, caused deep disruption in European politics, society and economics.
Then there’s the matter of Yemen, often lost among today’s headlines, where another tragedy is playing out. Scholars will note that Obama did nothing to stay the hand of America’s Arab allies, mainly Saudi Arabia, as they tore into the poverty-stricken country. Indeed, the US continued to sell the Saudis the arms it used for the purpose, until a very late pang of conscience. In Yemen, too, Obama’s decision to look the other way greatly strengthened Al Qaeda’s local franchise, and gave IS fresh recruits.
On Ukraine, Obama will likely be faulted for deserting an ally — one that had voluntarily destroyed its nuclear arsenal in exchange for promises of American protection — at its time of greatest need, allowing Russia to march unchallenged into the Crimea. By caving so easily to Moscow’s bullying, Obama will also be seen has having emboldened Vladimir Putin to flex his muscles elsewhere, most notably in Syria.
Even the few foreign-affairs success Obama now claims will be found historically flawed. He will be remembered as the man who gave the order to kill Osama bin Laden, but did absolutely nothing to punish Pakistan for harboring America’s greatest enemy; as the President who, in his haste to make a nuclear deal with Iran, enabled the Shia theocracy in Tehran to ratchet up Islam’s sectarian war; and as the leader who removed the shackles from the Castro regime without pressing it to do the same for the Cuban people.
We will miss Obama for a while. But his misses, and their consequences, will be with us for a long, long time.