Beginning The Discussion of Obama's Legacy: Foreign Affairs Part 1

By Alex Moore

With President Obama’s 8 years in office winding down, we at The Sellers Group figured it would be fitting to take a break from looking ahead and look backwards to discuss the legacy that Barry O will leave behind. Of course, I do not need to say anything about the massive historical significance of Obama being the first black man elected as the head of state in a country with a tumultuous racial past. I recently had a black friend of mine tell me that on November 4th, 2008, he realized that he could, quite literally, be whatever he wanted to be if he put his mind to it (this is why I believe representation in all things, even “007” movies, is important, but that’s for another post).

In this post, I will attempt to engage in a discussion regarding the legacy that Obama’s foreign policy will leave. We figured that doing a post discussing his domestic policy legacy in conjunction with his foreign affairs legacy would be far too long considering the detail we intend to delve into, thus the intricacies of his domestic legacy will be outlined in a future post.

Obama’s foreign policy convictions represent a stark contrast to the foreign policies pursued by the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. I mention these administrations due to the fact that these are the 3 presidents that have served our country following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the end of the Cold War, essentially launching the US into rare air as the world’s only superpower. Never before in modern history has one state operated in a unipolar international system (essentially meaning that we are and have been far more powerful than any other country in the world from 1991 until the present day).

In international relations theory, the foreign policies pursued by Clinton and Bush fall under the umbrella of liberal interventionism. Essentially, these two were willing, and did, use American force to intervene internationally in order to promote democracy and human rights, even when doing so did not directly correlate to American national security or geostrategic imperatives. For example, Clinton chose to pursue humanitarian interventions in Somalia, Haiti, and multiple countries that devolved from Yugoslavia, while Bush launched a preemptive war against Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein. These interventions were launched in part out of humanitarian concern and to promote liberal governance as opposed to simply accomplishing US security imperatives.

This is where Obama’s foreign policy inclinations break sharply from his two post-Cold War predecessors. In international relations theory, Obama falls under the umbrella of realism. He proudly taunts the label himself, likening the way he sees America’s role in the world to the way the George H.W Bush administration and figures such as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell saw it. Essentially, Obama, and other realists, are less idealistic than liberal interventionists when it comes to foreign policy and prefer only to invoke force when American security interests are directly threatened. Thus, Obama has been cautious to intervene in foreign conflicts that have arisen on his watch.

The most obvious and striking example from Obama’s presidency is the Syrian civil war. Obama, despite repeated calls from numerous individuals more open to intervention, many from within his own administration, has refused to launch strikes against the murderous and tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad and has instead chosen to do no more than to arm rebels (mainly the rebel factions that have coalesced loosely into the Free Syrian Army) in Syria. This is mainly due to the fact that Obama does not feel as though Assad presents a salient threat to American interests. Of course, it is not this simple, but you could write a book about the pros and cons of a full-scale assault on Assad, so I will refrain from further analysis. Infamously, Obama chose not to intervene even after Assad violated international law by launching chemical strikes, murdering thousands of civilians at the push of a button. Prior to the strikes, Obama had refereed to chemical weapon usage as a “red-line” for him in Syria. Despite this rhetoric, Obama called cruise-missile strikes off just days before they were set to be launched against Assad. The Syrian conflict presents perhaps the biggest threat to Obama’s legacy as of right now. The situation is a complete and utter catastrophe. Assad is a sociopathic despot who should be locked underneath a jail, yet he continues to slaughter civilians and rebels. Of course, hardline jihadists have also turned Syria into a playground, including ISIS, Al-Nusra Front (Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate), and arguably certain factions of the Army of Conquest such as Ahrar al-Sham are noteworthy. The refugee crisis has brought Europe to its knees, threatening to tear apart what I believe is the world’s greatest accomplishment of the 20th century, the European Union. Of course, the relative safe haven afforded to ISIS has also resulted in the group claiming responsibility for numerous international attacks as well, most notably in Paris, Brussels, Tunisia, Beirut, and the downing of the Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula. Long story short, Obama’s inaction in Syria threatens to cast a shadow over his legacy, just as George W. Bush’s overzealousness in Iraq casts a shadow over his.

US actions in Syria are starkly juxtaposed by the NATO intervention in Libya that the US was a part of in 2011 to depose the Qaddafi regime after he had threatened to murder his civilians in a similar manner to what we have seen Assad do in Syria. The US did take part in the coalition to oust Qaddafi, launching strikes against regime targets in the North African country. Libya, of course, is a mess now (or as Obama likes to call it, a shit show). Even here, Obama was reluctant to partake, only doing so when there was broad international backing following a UN vote and the pledged participation of numerous Arab League countries. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy also was the main international figure pushing for the intervention. Similar to Syria, Libya represents a conflict that has yet to completely play out. There are currently two separate governments that claim to govern Libya and numerous jihadi groups fighting in the North African nation. The lackluster nation building efforts in Libya following Qaddafi’s ousting may also hurt Obama’s legacy.

While Obama has been reluctant to use force against conventional state opponents that he feels do not threaten American interests, he has been equally willing to use force to take out terrorist threats that he feels do pose a direct (though, as he would be quick to tell you, not existential) threat to America. A big part of Obama’s legacy will be the drone war that has been fought against jihadists around the world in countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Pakistan, and others. Obama has been a prolific killer of terrorists throughout his time in the Oval. The drone program is not without controversy, however, arguably the most hotly debated topic in the field of terrorism studies (and what I wrote one of my undergraduate dissertations on) is whether or not cutting off the head really does kill the snake. While Obama has been adept at killing leading figures of numerous terrorist groups, he has also signed off on multiple strikes that have resulted in fatalities of noncombatants. Most famously, Obama ordered the raid that resulted in the death of the world’s most wanted man: Osama Bin Laden. As I write this, one of, if not the biggest foreign policy goals of the Obama administration is to kill Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, before he leaves office in January. Going hand in hand with this is the 2013 NSA scandal, when it was revealed that the Obama administration had authorized large-scale metadata collection that civil liberties advocates say is an egregious violation of personal privacy and the 4th amendment. However, to be frank, this issue was overblown from the start and the fact that you rarely hear about it anymore makes me think that it will not substantially harm his legacy.

Photo Credit: Danny Sellers