The 44th chairman of the United says promised come bring adjust but mostly drove the country deeper into a ditch.

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by Stephen M. Walt, a columnist in ~ Foreign policy and the Robert and also Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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WASHINGTON, DC - might 11: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he speak during an event to acknowledge emerging an international entrepreneurs may 11, 2015 in ~ the south Court Auditorium the Eisenhower executive Office structure in Washington, DC. Entrepreneurs from throughout the U.S. And also around the people participated, front of chairman Obamas travel to the an international Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya this summer, in the event which concentrated on investing in women and also young entrepreneurs. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
January 18, 2017, 10:58 AM

I began writing this tower (originally in the form of a blog) in 2009, at the really beginning that Barack Obama’s presidency. His choice filled me v both hope and trepidation: ns admired his eloquence and visible intelligence, and also I mutual some of his foreign-policy instincts, however my early on columns also expressed misgivings about his too many ambitious foreign-policy agenda.

Now, in his last week in office, it’s only herbal to take a look earlier and offer an assessment. And when it involves foreign policy, ns regret come say my decision is not an especially favorable.

Let’s start with the confident side of the ledger. Below one must begin by recalling the dire circumstances when Obama take it office. The civilization economy remained in the worst gaue won crisis since the good Depression, and also the United states was teetering on the brink the a finish economic meltdown. Joblessness was soaring, and millions of american were shedding their residences to foreclosures. The United says was mired in 2 unwinnable wars, Osama bin Laden was still at large, and also America’s image in countless parts that the civilization was at historic lows.


I began writing this shaft (originally in the kind of a blog) in 2009, in ~ the very beginning that Barack Obama’s presidency. His choice filled me v both hope and trepidation: i admired his eloquence and visible intelligence, and also I common some the his foreign-policy instincts, however my beforehand columns likewise expressed misgivings around his overly ambitious foreign-policy agenda.

Now, in his final week in office, that only organic to take a look back and market an assessment. And when it pertains to foreign policy, i regret come say my decision is not an especially favorable.

Let’s start with the positive side of the ledger. Here one must start by recalling the dire circumstances once Obama take it office. The human being economy remained in the worst jae won crisis since the good Depression, and the United says was teetering top top the brink of a complete economic meltdown. Joblessness was soaring, and also millions of american were shedding their houses to foreclosures. The United claims was mired in 2 unwinnable wars, Osama bin Laden to be still in ~ large, and America’s photo in plenty of parts of the world was at historic lows.

What has actually happened since? right here at home, the U.S. Economic situation recovered much faster than any of the other significant industrial democracies, we’re now at complete employment, and the deficits the resulted from the 2009 bailouts and also stimulus package have actually shrunk dramatically. Wall surface Street to be at near-record levels even before the current post-election surge. More than 20 million Americans who lacked health care coverage now have actually it (for the moment), and also we have actually seen essential progress top top civil rights for gay Americans and some various other minorities. Moreover, Obama controlled these crucial economic and social achievements in the challenge of extraordinary opposition native the Republican Party, i m sorry seemed much more interested in thwarting Obama than in law anything to assist the American people.

In foreign policy, the Obama management successfully negotiated a transaction that stopped Iran’s development toward a atom weapon. The fulfilled the George W. Bush administration’s plan to obtain U.S. Troops out of Iraq and significantly decreased the U.S. Function in Afghanistan. Bin Laden was found and eliminated on his watch. The Paris commitment was critical step forward on climate change, and also the pivot come Asia began a much-needed reorientation of America’s strategic focus. Finishing the spiteful and counterproductive ostracism the Cuba to be equally overdue and will do more for the Cuban people than our lame-brained embargo ever did.

In both foreign and also domestic policy, therefore, this management notched some real wins. And also throughout his presidency, Obama carried out himself v the same dignity, humor, grace, intelligence, forbearance, respect for American values and also traditions, and over all class that were on display in his bye speech. Contrast that through the tone of Donald Trump’s very first post-election press conference, organized the job after Obama’s speech, which was bombastic, deceptive, abusive, defiant, contemptuous of classic norms — and also entirely continual with Trump’s campaign and business career. (If you think Jan. 20 isn’t a watershed minute for politics leadership, think again.) No matter just how petty or two-faced his opponents were, Obama seldom paid them ago in kind. One doubt Americans will appreciate these qualities even an ext as Trump’s egomaniacal circus action wears thin and also his plutocratic policies leave his working-class supporters the end in the cold.

Yet Obama’s presidency is in various other respects a tragedy — and especially as soon as it comes to foreign policy. That is a tragedy since Obama had the opportunity to refashion America’s duty in the world, and at time he appeared to desire to do simply that. The crisis of 2008-2009 to be the ideal moment to abandon the failure strategy of for free hegemony that the joined States had actually been pursuing due to the fact that the finish of the Cold War, however in the finish Obama never broke with that familiar yet failed approach. The result was a legacy of foreign-policy missteps that aided propel Donald Trump into the White House.

For starters, Obama was persuaded to change the ladder the battle in Afghanistan in 2009, in a pointless “surge” the was doomed come fail and did. Rather of acknowledging the U.S. Interests to be minimal and the war was unwinnable, his policies prolonged U.S. Involvement to no great purpose and also ate increase a lot of his time and also attention. He additionally decided to take on and increase many facets of the bush administration’s approach to the “war on terror,” specifically the use of drones and special operations pressures to chase under suspected terrorists anywhere the world. That rightly banned torture — which is both ineffective and illegal — however otherwise permit U.S. Intelligence agencies off the hook because that their previous excesses and also did tiny to rein them in as soon as they overstepped top top his watch, together the CIA did when it repeatedly tried come interfere v Senate investigate of the so-called torture regime. Meanwhile, his administration prosecuted whistleblowers and journalists with an ext vigor than any kind of of his predecessors. The result? The United states is conducting counterterrorism work in more places than ever before before, albeit without noticeable success, and Donald Trump has actually inherited a set of devices he have the right to use to suppress moral reporting if that wishes. Any kind of bets ~ above what he’s most likely to do?

Second, Obama and also his team misread and mishandled the Arab Spring. Together Joshua Landis defines in a remarkable, must-read interview, the U.S. Response to these events — and especially Syria — was ill-conceived indigenous the an extremely start. In particular, Obama and his team mistakenly viewed the Arab Spring together a large-scale, grass-roots uprising clamoring because that liberal democracy and embraced it too quickly. They also underestimated the capacity of violent extremists to exploit power vacuums in failed states and the resilience of authoritarian power in places like Syria or Egypt. These misunderstandings caused Obama’s destructive intervention in Libya, his inept diplomatic interference in Yemen, and the premature need that “Assad need to go” in Syria. As continual readers know, i think Obama make the right contact when he determined not to wade deeper right into the Syrian quagmire, but his taking care of of this admittedly turbulent and also difficult-to-read process can fixed be considered a success.

Regarding Israel-Palestine, Obama take it office vowing to accomplish a two-state solution by the finish of his an initial term, and he and also his second-term secretary that state, man Kerry, committed endless hours to this quixotic quest. Unfortunately, they adhered to the standard “peace process” playbook and got the same results their predecessors did. A two-state systems is more away than ever and probably impossible, in component because Obama never ever seemed to understand that relying ~ above pro-Israel advisors v a lengthy track record of not producing an agreement was a pretty an excellent way to guarantee failure again. Nor did Obama and Kerry ever before realize the Israeli element Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not interested in a genuine two-state solution and also that Israel was never going to cut a transaction unless the United claims made that clear that failing to perform so would lead to dramatic to reduce in U.S. Military help and diplomatic protection. Obama’s offer of ever larger bribes that U.S. Military assist proved insufficient to the task, together Netanyahu quite sensibly pocketed the offer and also dug in his heels, even flying to Washington come dis the president in public. I know why Obama felt he had actually to pardon this kind of abuse from a dependent customer state (after all, I created a book around it), however if he to be unwilling come play hardball, that shouldn’t have promised to deliver a solution and also shouldn’t have wasted any type of time or power on it.

Obama’s taking care of of Russia deserves no plaudits either. The early on attempt at a “reset” make sense, but Obama and also his torture never taken that what they related to as innocent and legitimate efforts to strengthen democracy in east Europe or in Russia itself were not going to be viewed as benign by Moscow. Also worse, the White House appears to have been asleep at the switch in the months coming before the crisis in Ukraine and also ended up blindsided by Russian president Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Crimea. Moscow’s actions space regrettable on countless levels, however Obama and the human being in charge of U.S. Policy in eastern Europe have to not have actually been surprised. Great powers are constantly sensitive to events near their borders, and also Moscow had made that clear, in ~ least since 2008, that it would not allow Ukraine or Georgia drift toward NATO there is no a fight. That was also abundantly clear that Putin witnessed U.S. And EU efforts to draw Ukraine come the West together a step toward happen them into NATO, and he had both the an ideas and the capability to prevent it. And also he did.

Obama’s desire to “rebalance” U.S. Attention toward Asia to be sound, and also his management did make necessary progress towards that goal. However the fail to set clearer priorities or liquidate shedding positions faster undermined the effort. Managing relations in Asia is complex, challenging, and time-consuming, and the United states will not have the ability to manage its Asian partnerships and counter a climbing China if the is constantly being distracted by occasions in locations of much less strategic importance. The management also blundered when it determined not to participate in China’s brand-new Asian infrastructure Investment Bank and then found that even close allies favor Britain and also Israel were ignoring U.S. Pressure and eager to join.

As I said several years ago, the days once the joined States could create security and maintain stimulate in nearly every part of the human being are behind it, and also U.S. Leaders must do a far better job of deciding which places matter most and which can be left to operation themselves. Come a large extent, Obama never made that choice.

What describes these assorted failures? 2 things, primarily. First, return Obama take it office intending to re-engineer America’s connection with the world, that was easily co-opted by the existing national security establishment and bought right into its mantra that the United states as the “indispensable power” have to take the lead in fostering a rules-based people order centered on totally free markets, democracy, and human rights. Right here Obama did face a real dilemma: The autonomous Party’s foreign-policy apparatus was conquered by devoted liberal crusaders, which expected there was hardly anyone Obama can appoint that agreed wholeheartedly with his foreign-policy instincts. When he selected human being like Hillary Clinton, Jim Steinberg, Susan Rice, Tom Donilon, Samantha Power, and Anne-Marie Slaughter — along with veteran insiders prefer Robert Gates, john Brennan, and also Dennis Ross — the dice was cast. This team had plenty of disagreements, to it is in sure, however they were every ardent loyalty in U.S. “global leadership,” and they rarely saw an international issue they no think the united States have to play a major role in solving.

Like invoice Clinton, Obama make the efforts to resolve a huge array of global problems together cheaply as feasible (and there is no “boots top top the ground”), yet he never ever told the American human being what their vital interests actually were. Same important, this most eloquent the presidents never provided voters a straightforward template to assist them distinguish in between the areas where the joined States must stand all set to fight and also regions it might safely leave to others. Instead, almost any component of the civilization could suddenly become a “vital interest” for which Washington was supposed to have actually a solution, and also failure come act automatically in a situation anywhere exposed him come charges the he was squandering U.S. Credibility or leaving the nation vulnerable to part shadowy danger. “He who defends whatever defends nothing,” warned Frederick the Great, and also Obama’s inability to build a clear set of strategic priorities hurt him transparent his presidency.

Second, in both domestic and foreign policy, Obama fail to appreciate that his enemies were not as reasonable, rational, cool, or unselfish as he was. If a main theme runs v Obama’s method to politics, the is his conviction that civilization with different views deserve to come together, discuss, debate, re-superstructure information, and gradually involved a mutual knowledge that satisfies both sides and also that will advance the public interest. This top quality made him a great law testimonial editor and also a successful neighborhood organizer, yet it hamstrung him as president in today’s extremely polarized politics environment.

When handling Netanyahu, for example, Obama (and Kerry) assumed it noticeable that “two states for 2 peoples” remained in Israel’s interest and that Netanyahu might be encouraged to see this as soon as he to be assured of continued U.S. Support. They did not think about that Netanyahu could be personal wedded come the Likud party’s dream that a “Greater Israel” or worried the cutting a transaction would expense him his job, and also therefore no quantity of cajoling or coddling would ever win the over. In Putin, Obama observed the leader of a declining power whose best course was to liberalize further and reform the lagging Russian economy. In this view, Putin simply needed to it is in told the the United says was only trying to help his eastern European neighbors prosper and also not seeking to hurt Russia or topple him. Putin had different priorities, however, and in any kind of case was not going to accept verbal assurances together he watched NATO creep ever eastward. Earlier at home, Obama appeared to think the he might win end Republicans by getting to out to them — as he did once he nominated a highly qualified and also decidedly middle candidate for the can be fried Court — never quite establish that man Boehner, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and also the whole tea party cared much more about Obama failing than they did about America succeeding.

Barack Obama is an intelligent, disciplined, eloquent, upright, patriotic, and wholly admirable man, and also in countless ways he was an inspirational president. That is no accident the his approval ratings room vastly higher than the male who will succeed that or that he may be the most well-known politician in the human being at large. He take it office in ~ a time once the joined States challenged genuine perils, and he safely steered the nation away from the brink. Had he administrate in a much more tranquil era, and also with a spirited however constructive party the contrary him, he can have accomplished even more.

But in international policy Obama’s record was largely one the failure. Neither the state the the civilization nor America’s place in it is more powerful today than they were once he take it office. The result in Iraq and Afghanistan might not be his fault, together those wars were fail even prior to he take it office, but some the his decisions compounded the mistakes that inherited.

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But as I claimed in my column earlier this month, just because things look grim now does not mean they cannot acquire worse. And if lock do, Obama’s presidency, in spite of the missteps and missed opportunities, will seem prefer an era of honor and also decency the Americans willfully actors aside and also may never fully regain.