PETER MCKENNA: Obama’s foreign policy legacy

President was Inclined to greater international responsibility, burden-sharing among allies

Published on December 31, 2016

U.S. President Barack Obama

©AP Wirephoto

You could probably sum up U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign policy doctrine in two words: act cautiously. But that was undoubtedly a function of two other key factors—namely, a (mis) adventurous George W. Bush Administration and the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

More importantly, Obama was much less convinced about the efficacy and effectiveness of exerting brute military force. And he certainly had qualms about “American exceptionalism” and imposing America’s model of democracy on other autocratic countries.

Instead, he was more inclined to opt for greater international responsibility and burden-sharing among U.S. allies. That led to the unhelpful characterization, emanating from the White House itself, of Obama ostensibly “leading from behind.”

As a result, outgoing President Obama will leave behind a mixed record in terms of international affairs. Even though he tried, he did not always succeed in following his own foreign policy motto: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

The 2011 military intervention in Libya, aggressively pushed by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was a case of not planning properly and thoughtfully for life after Moammar Gadhafi. He forgot that protecting the people of Benghazi and deposing the dictator were the easy parts.

By eschewing the heavy-lifting of “nation-building” - as Bush himself came to realize painfully - it creates less stability and more chaos and factionalism on the ground. So Obama’s natural inclination toward caution essentially nullified his gifted intellect.

Moreover, his reluctance to expend political, diplomatic and military capital in Syria has contributed to a humanitarian disaster that shows no signs of relenting. And his ill advised conduct in 2012 not to follow through on his “red line” (which would trigger substantial U.S. military intervention) of no chemical weapons use by Syria’s vicious President Bashar al-Assad diminished U.S. credibility on the world stage.

Additionally, his rapprochement with the Muslim world, actions on the Middle East peace file, curbing nuclear proliferation and his vaunted “Asian pivot” were all tepid efforts at best. The touted “reset” with Russia, while on life support after Vladimir Putin’s aggressive Ukraine gambit and his unlawful annexation of Crimea, has now completely fallen off the rails.

His inability to close down the disgraceful Guantanamo Bay detention centre - albeit in the face of stiff congressional opposition - was a notable failure. His measures to actually combat climate change were on the minimalist side - and will most likely be knee-capped by president-elect Donald Trump.

But there were successes, too. And one could make a persuasive case that those victories generally outweigh his failures.

Arguably his most significant foreign policy achievement - besides rebuilding U.S. standing in the world after the disastrous Bush presidency - was his controversial nuclear weapons deal with nettlesome Iran. It opens the possibility of improving bilateral relations with a key regional player, gains better U.S. access to a sizable economic marketplace, and stymies Chinese efforts at currying favour in Tehran.

His deft move to normalize relations with Cuba, after decades of a failed policy of isolation and hostility, should not be dismissed lightly as low-hanging fruit. Whether the process continues is an open question at the moment, but the initiative itself should be seen in the context of improving Washington’s prestige and position throughout the Americas.

He can also take some credit for strengthening ties with China, urging the removal of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and encouraging long-awaited political reforms and freedoms in Myanmar. In addition, he minimized the U.S. military footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan (wars that had cost over $4.4 trillion and thousands of U.S. military casualties), made the use of torture illegal again, and put Canada-U.S. relations on a stronger footing.

However, where Obama is most susceptible to harsh criticism is his preference to resort to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones as the centrepiece of his counterterrorism strategy. For some, his legacy has been substantially diminished and left him vulnerable to charges of being “the drone president” or, even worse, “the assassin-in-chief.” Others have been quick to label the President - who has approved almost 600 drone strikes during his tenure - as nothing less than judge, jury and executioner.

No one is suggesting here that President Barack Obama has not left a solid foreign policy legacy. But his overall record has been tainted by his heavy reliance, expansion and secretive use of drone warfare. Now Obama finds himself in the very uncomfortable position of having to bequeath what he built and institutionalized to the unpredictable and mercurial Donald John Trump.


- Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.