I was one of those people who shed a little tear when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States of America on November 4th, 2008. There were a lot of reasons the election of the man gave me hope: partly it was that the notion that “anyone” could become president had finally been genuinely realised (if a black guy named Barack Obama could do it, then anyone really could); partly it was that we had at last seen the end of the W Bush period, one in which cowboy foreign policy had reigned supreme. I had great hopes for a new era of geopolitics that would be a lot more functional than what we’d just been through.
Sadly, from the perspective of 2015, late-2008 looks like the end of a semi-golden age and the infancy of one of increasing international insecurity. And although I hate to say this, the Obama administration has to shoulder its share of the blame for this. It has in many ways been as bad as the W Bush administration was, albeit in opposite ways.
I’ll start with the good stuff: I think American right-wingers have got the wrong end of the stick regarding the recent Iran deal. It was necessary and, by and large, helpful to US interests. The only problem is that it needs to be seen in context; as something the Iranian theocratic regime will use to further its own interests, particularly those which clash with America’s. In other words, the deal has definite pluses and minuses. This is something the Obama administration does not seem to have thought about in enough depth – but I’m sticking with the positives here for now, so I’ll leave that here.
The administration managed to detach itself from Afghanistan without it being a total disaster. Things are certainly not great in the region, but at least the Taliban haven’t just stormed into Kabul and taken charge again. Obama deserves some credit for that.
After that, it becomes hard to pick out the positives, and the negatives are so numerous that, for the sake of brevity, I will have to stick only to the big stuff. I could write whole articles about the handling of Iraq (although admittedly he did inherit a terrible situation there), the fact that Guantanamo is still open in late-2015, the mishandling of the Arab Spring. No, my main problem with the foreign policy of the Obama administration is that it took all the weaknesses of the W Bush period and simply inverted them, so that in essence they became problems on the same scale but as a mirror image. The W Bush administration was trigger happy, desperate to find somewhere to lay its tanks in pursuit of only Dick Cheney knew (and I don’t think even he ever really knew). Now we have an American president who is visibly averse to intervention anywhere, for any reason whatsoever. This has lead directly to Russian revanchism in the form of the Ukrainian situation and Putin successfully placing himself in the role of sole arbiter of Syria’s future. The Russians saw American weakness and have exploited it, to the detriment of millions.
What were once considered real red lines (the use of chemical weapons comes to mind) have now been essentially green lit. The administration has gone so far in this direction, it looks as if Russia is even wondering whether America would protect the Baltic states if they were attacked. I still feel sure they would, but this is the problem: if America is willing to defend these countries and yet Russia doesn’t believe it would beforehand, this is exactly how wars begin.
I’m not saying I wish Obama had been anything like W Bush, far from it. But is it too much to ask for an American executive administration to have some balance and foresight when it comes to foreign policy? To correctly judge the geopolitical situation at least half the time (I’d settle for a third of the time at this point)? Sadly, Barack Obama’s time as president has provided us with the tragic answer.