The final address of US President Barack Obama on Tuesday focused on the threats to American democracy. The subject was more of a professorial selection and fittingly so given that the outgoing president has often come across as a professor more than as an administrator. Beyond the stray reference to the post-World War II international order and an isolated mention of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, his speech refrained from delving deep into his own foreign policy legacy.
But before moving beyond American shores, Obama’s legacy has to contend with the domestic transition it engendered in the form of the election of Donald Trump as his successor. While acknowledging the contrast between Obama’s dignified manner and Trump’s undiplomatic style, the question of how the former led to the success of the latter cannot be overlooked.
Moreover, the events that unfolded in the transition period also left a bad aftertaste. Take, for instance, Obama’s decision to sanction Russian intelligence agencies and expel 35 Russian diplomats from the US on 29 December 2016. Not only did his decision come late, as the charge against the Kremlin of interfering in the US election had been doing the rounds for many weeks, it also came within a day of a new ceasefire being announced in Syria, this time brokered by Russia and Turkey (with the US conspicuously kept out).
All this while, Obama knew that the president-elect wishes to turn around relations with Russia and seek its cooperation in fixing the Middle-East problem. Similarly, Obama’s decisions to, first, abstain in a UN security council vote against Israeli settlements on Palestine territory and, second, allow John Kerry, the secretary of state, to rail against the democratically elected government in Israel, a long-standing US ally, were also taken with full knowledge of Trump’s inclination towards the Jewish state.
Legally speaking, Obama was within his rights to do as he did. But propriety demanded that he not queer the pitch for his successor. Even if Obama firmly believed that Trump’s approach to Russia and Israel will be ill-advised, he should have left space for the Trump administration to recast US policies within the framework of the American constitution.
Also read: History’s harsh lens on Barack Obama
On the global stage, judgement on his legacy will largely depend on how one evaluates Obama on the wars he chose to fight (Libya), the wars he chose not to fight (Syria and Iran), the wars he chose to withdraw from (Iraq and Afghanistan) and the wars he simply looked away from (Yemen). A disaggregated look is essential because the alternative of pigeonholing Obama either into “a liberal interventionist” or “a cold-blooded realist” not only fails to capture the entire truth but also furthers the Manichaean divide that adherents of both ideological camps wish to propel.
Obama’s model of a bare-minimum intervention failed with terrible consequences in Libya and the manner in which he withdrew forces from Iraq and Afghanistan did hand over the advantage to the Islamic State and the Taliban. Obama’s decision not to intervene in Syria was a wise one but it is important to recognize that it came at a cost to American credibility thanks to his own red lines on the use of chemical weapons.
Moreover, the ill-thought-out manner in which the Obama administration chose its allies against the Bashar al-Assad regime ended up strengthening the hands of terror groups ranging from Al-Nusra to the Islamic State. Whatever was committed to “democratic rebels” was so little that much less than full support by a major power like Russia was enough to swing the balance decisively in Assad’s favour. And in blaming its adversary, Russia, for its own failure in Syria, the Obama administration is merely paying a compliment to President Vladimir Putin—something that Trump does far more directly.
The nuclear deal with Iran was unambiguously a great achievement and not just because it helped avoid yet another conflict in the troubled region. The deal envisioned certain overdue realignments in the region but could not carry them through because the Obama administration opted to look away even as Saudi Arabia and its allies committed excesses in Yemen.
Obama’s signature policy—the pivot to Asia—however lacked the kind of commitment it would have required from the US to achieve the threshold of success. At the end of Obama’s tenure, there is no sign of China backing away from its aggressive pursuits in the South China Sea. And a confrontational approach with Putin has only contributed to a closer Russia-China embrace. If Trump overturns this by cultivating Russia, it will be good not just for the US but also for India.
Even if Obama demurred on Pakistan, India can be called one of the biggest successes of his administration. The recognition of India’s importance, however, came late and the real vigour in the partnership arrived with Narendra Modi’s election in 2014. Trump would do well to build on this success.
The final word on Obama’s legacy, however, will have to wait for the completion of President Trump’s tenure. Obama is merely 55 years old and will be keenly observing whether Trump is able to “make America great again”.
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