President Obama is a cautious man. Cerebral, reserved, patient. But nearing six and half years in office I am beginning to think that he doesn’t have a clue what he wants to achieve.
He started off with the clear message that he isn’t George W. Bush. And as time has passed this maybe the only thing he’s clear on. He wanted to end wars rather than start them, and he pre-emptively won the Nobel Peace Prize on that basis in 2009.
Unfortunately, other players in the world have very different, and more belligerent, ambitions. The Arab Spring altered the geo-political climate as the regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya crumbled. Syria disappeared into a fog of civil war, and against the advice of Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defence Panetta, and General Petraeus, Obama didn’t intervene. Instead we watched in horror as al-Qaeda in Iraq crossed into Syria, morphed into ISIS, and crossed back into Iraq where it swept through Mosul and Anbar Province, taking the arms dropped by the fleeing Iraqi Army, which had been so hollowed out by a paranoid Shiite government in Baghdad.
Still Obama stood idle; sensitive to Democratic Party opinion should he appear to be anything like Bush. This after he had won re-election therefore removing the need for him to take the pulse of his party support like it was 2008. Only when the ISIS advanced towards the capital of the Kurdistan autonomous government in northern Iraq, and a humanitarian crisis among the only people in the region who have a chance at securing their own peace and security, not to mention liberty and civil society (a rare find in that part of the world) finally forced his hand. The President swung into action and ordered supply drops and eventual air strikes from the cover of an international coalition. How did we end up with a US president so feckless?
Since the no-fly zone was introduced by President George HW. Bush in 1991, the Kurds – by far the largest nation in the world to not have a state of their own – were granted autonomous control over three provinces in Iraq. This represents a very small part of Kurdish land, which sits on the divide between Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Statehood has been a very difficult question to address because of the fear these other nations have of the effect it would have for their own territory. The picture is changing though. Syria no longer matters; the words ‘Syrian Government’ no longer have meaning. Turkey just had an election which saw the ruling AKP party, which President Erdogan formally led as Prime Minister from 2002 till last year, lose their Parliamentary majority. Erdogan’s constitutional plans to give himself supreme power as the ‘executive President,’ have been scuttled.
The Kurdish minority in Turkey now has political representation, as their party received 12 percent of the vote. Something tells me that Turkey’s obstinate refusal to allow the Iraqi Kurds to declare independence on pain of invasion, may well change. The Kurds are definitely in favour of their own state, as 98.7 percent voted in favour of it in a referendum in 2005. They are pragmatic though, and their priority is defending themselves against ISIS. Statehood is a lesser concern.
If they make a significant step towards statehood before January 2017 when Obama leaves office, I’m sure some democrat demagogue will try to tack it onto the outgoing President’s paltry list of foreign policy achievements. Anything to distract from the list of failures, but ironically any credit due to America belongs to the two Bush administrations.
Obama’s weapon of choice in foreign matters is the predator drone, and his kill list with over a million names. Foreign Policy used to be an area of undisputed presidential power. Enter the president of the red lines, who will shrivel up and cower if you cross him. Remember his warning to Syrian President al-Assad that there would be consequences should he use chemical weapons on his own people? You can still smell the sarin and chlorine on the rubble of Syria. Vladimir Putin stepped in to save America’s face by negotiating to remove the weapon stocks. I am sure the de facto tsar of the new Russia noted the shallowness of Obama’s resolve, and kept in mind when he annexed Crimea.
Obama has some genuine desires. He wants a nuclear deal with Iran, but he is willing to give up everything to get it, either that or he simply doesn’t care. I think he is just an academic with a bad case of tunnel vision.
The President’s international failures include the failure to make any progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict. No nuclear deal with Iran. No nuclear deal with North Korea. The abandonment of Iraq and Afghanistan to the devils and demons of ISIS and the Teleban. Breaking his promise on the closure of Guantanamo Bay. Allowing Putin to dance all over him whilst believing that international isolation and pressure will convince Russia to toe the line. That’s worked so well in the past.
Let’s not be ungenerous. He’s warming relations with Cuba and he ordered the raid which killed Osama bin-Laden. As the character Leo McGarry says to the President in The West Wing; “This office isn’t always about doing something. Most of the time it’s about not doing something.” Obama has taken this lesson to heart, but he has forgotten the obvious proviso: Sometimes you have to actually do something.
Perhaps I am being too hard on the President. He has done well in other areas of Foreign Policy where his style has found a receptive audience. The pursuit of US interests in the Asia-Pacific – vulgarly known as the ‘pivot’, has been a marked success. Obama has rebuilt America’s relationship with Malaysia, and forged strong defence ties with the Philippines. Stationing slightly more US garrison troops in Australia has kept the land of dingoes and mines happy enough in its sphere of influence. All this doesn’t counter the rise of China, which is still locked in a maritime dispute with several neighbours over its rights to the South-China Sea. But if the Bush policy of rusted indifference continued for the last six years America would be looking decidedly absent from the Asia-Pacific hemisphere. And they would have no way in at this point.
It has laid the groundwork for climate change agreements with China that could actually lead somewhere, and we may not appreciate that for many years to come.
The refocusing of US interests from Europe and the Middle East, to the Asia Pacific, is a strategic move that has potential benefits for future presidents. Obama’s ability to get along personally with other leaders in the region, to work on areas of common agreement, and to do so peacefully, is of huge importance for the future. International crisis will be addressed by the US and China, and they need to have a working relationship with mutual trust, that assures the peace and security of the smaller players in the region. The things that may be possible in future decades if we get this combination right are far reaching, and well worth the effort it takes us.
Persuasive cases are being made supporting the splitting of Iraq – the failed British imperialistic experiment, and nation building experiment that it is – and giving rise to a situation similar to that of the former Yugoslavia. The Kurdish north is an obvious successor state, perhaps too a state for the Sunni minority to prevent the sectarian power struggle from continuing. I am certainly out on an idealistic limb here, and if states were to pop up willy-nilly in Mesopotamia one might well wonder why a Palestinian State is such an impossible task. I am sure the bible thumpers of the US who support Zionism from the belief that Armageddon will be brought on if every Jew travels to the Holy Land, would start spouting frothy gobs of hateful spit at that. But of course I digress, we must return to the matter at hand.
Obama has been reluctant to arm rebels and Syria and elsewhere, although he has followed through on some occasions. I agree with his hesitancy on this point. Weapons have a tendency to end up in the mischievous hands of those they were not intended for. A small group of men with guns can cause a horrendous amount of terror and villainy, and arms are notoriously difficult to track. The usual cranks on Fox News tend to wail on about the need to arm ‘moderate’ Muslims (harder to identify than they think) while in the same breath – but a slightly different tone – demand the presence of guns in American homes. It doesn’t pay to put the lunatic in charge of the madhouse, so sensible leaders ignore the demands of the Fox contingent.
Short of putting a significant number of troops on the ground, I doubt Obama can achieve his objective of securing the territorial integrity of Iraq. In point of fact, this policy is already dead and buried. While we may be so used to American intervention as the ‘global policeman’, it is a historical anomaly. The Monroe Doctrine of securing American supremacy in its own hemisphere and leaving the rest of the world to its own devices, is underpinned even now by a temptation to return to isolationism. Obama’s doctrine is not Monroe’s, but nor is it Bush’s. The use of military force is a last resort, and diplomacy is the weapon of choice today. Might the next president use the military more freely? Yes, if it is Mrs Clinton who succeeds. Her husband had no qualms about deploying the might of his military to distract from his indiscretions with a young intern. Such reptilian ruthlessness is part of Hillary too, and I suspect she will wield power like a Rottweiler.
In conclusion, I say that Obama has disappointed me hugely, and I don’t hold out much hope that is final months in office will add much to his legacy. But, as the economy improves he might rise in respect and approval as a decent President who tried his best. There hasn’t been a large scale terrorist attack on the US on his watch (the Boston bombing was horrific, but conducted by lone-wolves), and for better or worse he hasn’t invaded anyone. Like many in America, I am starting to look restlessly for who’s next.