Sunday, January 08, 2017

Obama's Legacy - Foreign Policy

Obama opposed the Iraq war. This gave him a big advantage in the 2008 primaries since Clinton and Edwards had both voted in favor of it. Of course, he was a state senator at the time but it gave him credibility when he made ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the center of his campaign. During one of the debates he stated that he was willing to meet with the heads of hostile countries without pre-condition and spoke disparagingly of treating a presidential visit as a reward to foreign countries. THis was met with disbelief by Clinton and others with foreign policy experience. Regardless, Obama doubled down, implying that nations were hostile to us only because we hadn't approached them properly.

Although never stated publicly, this was the main thrust of Obama's foreign policy: approaching hostile nations and trying to forge friendly relations. He also was a proponent of nuclear disarmament. 

This sounds good in practice but requires careful implementation and care that traditional allies are not slighted.

The Obama years were not a good time to be a friend of the US, especially one who had good relations with the Bush (43) administration. The Obama administration decided that Germany was more important to us than England. India, which had been growing close to the US, got a cool reception from the US under Obama. Israel received the worst treatment as Obama put "daylight" between the two countries culminating with a UN resolution that declares that Judaism's holiest spots are illegally occupied conquered territory.

The various policies are so interconnected that it's hard to know where to start. An easy one is Cuba. The best policy would have been to wait fo the Castro brothers to die of old age and strike a bargain with their successors to lift sanctions in exchange for liberalizing Cuba. But that meant that a different president would get credit for reopening ties with Cuba and Obama wanted that to be part of his legacy. So he opened relations on nothing more than a vague promise from the Castros to release some political prisoners in the future. Unsurprisingly, the opening of Cuba was accompanied by government crackdowns instead of liberalization and Fidel Castro never softened his anti-American speeches until his death.

Iran is a more difficult case. Obama dreamed of being responsible for Iran being accepted back into the brotherhood of nations. He planned for it to take it's place as a regional power and to take our place as the peacekeeper in Iraq. The first step to that was to conclude the talks that were supposed to stop Iran's nuclear program. This cast a long shadow over all of Obama's other dealing in the middle-East. It was obvious to Iran that Obama wanted a treaty more than they did so they were able to dictate his actions elsewhere, particularly Syria. Syria is a client state of Iran and they let it be known that any actions we took to dispose the Syrian government would end the treaty negotiation.

This gave a sanctuary for the radical groups who had been forced out of Iraq to come together to form Isis. When he was finally forced to fight, Isis, Obama limited his efforts to Iraq. There was an effort to find and train Syrians to fight Isis but it was nearly impossible to find people who would promise not to take part in the raging Syrian civil war.

Since Obama had no intention of sending American combat troops to fight Isis, he had to rely on the Kurds. This caused tension with Turkey which has a Kurdish minority that wants to join with the Iraqi Kurds to form their own state. Obama's refusal to establish a no-fly zone over Syria caused more tension (the no-fly zone was vetoed by Iran). Eventually Turkey turned to Russia.

The Syrian civil war has caused humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions displaced. Obama keeps saying that there is no military solution to Syria, only a diplomatic one and engaging in his favorite rhetorical device the straw-man choice (doing nothing vs a full scale invasion which no one has asked for). At this point, the Russians have proved that there is always a military solution if you are ruthless enough.

Libya is another humanitarian disaster, one we were responsible for. Obama supported a rebellion that overthrew a corrupt but stable government. The result is that Libya became a failed state.

The refugees from Syria and Libya are streaming into Europe and threatening to break apart the European Union. Anti-immigrant parties are on the rise in several countries across Europe and resistance to Europe's open border policy was a factor in the Brexit (Obama made things worse by threatening Great Briton that they'd go to the back of the queue in trade talks if they split from Europe. The Brits resented being lectured on their future by an American president and probably helped the leave faction).

We had a chance to change the governments of both Iran and Syria. After a rigged election, the Green Revolution broke out. We could have helped it. The CIA had a group that assists in organizing groups pushing for democratic reforms. Rather than assisting the Green Revolution, Obama ordered a hands-off policy. Later, the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse because of sanctions so he lifted some and lifted even more after the nuclear treaty was signed. He even shipped pallets of cash in small bills to Iran to pay for a hostage release.

At one point, early in the Syrian civil war, Russia offered to force the Syrian government out but we passed on that offer because we were sure it would collapse on its own soon.

Relations with Russia were already strained when Obama took office. He sent Secretary of State with a symbolic "reset button" then followed up personally. Instead of improving, relations continued to deteriorate. The Ukraine was invaded and the Crimea annexed. During a 2012 debate, Obama mocked Romney for calling Russia our biggest geopolitical rival. By his last month in office he was sanctioning them for interfering in the presidential election. Along the way Obama managed to convince Putin that we were planning on overthrowing him.

Egypt has had two revolutions on Obama's watch. In both cases, we started by supporting the current government, then supporting the revolution. The Obama State Department allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt because they were curious to see if it could turn into a responsible government. They couldn't and we supported a military coup which has turned out to be at least as repressive as the two previous governments.

One indirect benefit of Obama's pro-Iran policy is a stronger Israel. The Saudis and their allies are worried by Obama's support for Iran and see Israel as a strong ally, one that the US has similarly turned it's back on.

All of this for a treaty that was supposed to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but instead gives them a timetable for becoming a legal nuclear power. Like Cuba, Iran was far from grateful. Instead they are working on ballistic missiles capable of striking all of Europe with the nuclear bombs that they are allowed to build in just a few years. And they have already declared that the US is in violation of the treaty which allows them to do anything they want (and can now afford after sanctions were lifted and billions of dollars delivered).

In 2004 Obama accidentally drew a red line for Syria - no chemical weapons. By 2005 it was obvious that they had been using them. Obama and Secretary of State Kerry promised that we would retaliate but it would be "unbelievably small". Then, after Britain's Parliament voted against taking action, Obama decided that he would not act without Congressional approval. Keep in mind that he had already expended his drone war into a half dozen countries and overthrown the government of Libya without Congress but he needed their approval for an unbelievably small retaliation. Congress refused. Russian intervened and Syria gave up its chemical weapons stockpiles and resorted to using chlorine gas instead. This was a terrible outcome. Obama and the US looked weak for making threats that we had no intention of following through on and for needing Russia to clean up after us and it didn't even stop Syria from using poison gas.

That sums up the world's view of the US under Obama. We talk a lot, often talking down to other nations, but we fail to follow through in any meaningful way. The world has stopped looking to the US and now goes it alone or looks to Russia for support.

I've rambled on long enough so I won't even mention China's incursions into the South Sea or Korea's weapons program.

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