The 44th president’s legacy

Inspired by Lincoln, Obama’s primary mission has been to patch up rifts between communities, people and nations.

Having entered the White House with the stated objective of ending military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 44th US president achieved a complete military withdrawal from Iraq and put an end to combat operations in Afghanistan. These results have enabled him to put the inheritance he received from his predecessor George W. Bush behind him. But Obama has invested far greater political, military and financial resources in creating a legacy of his own by attempting to change the country’s approach to national security and the protection of the United States on the world stage. 

Fully aware that he is governing a country attacked by jihadist terrorism on 11 September 2001 and facing a long, drawn out battle against this foe, Obama has redesigned the US approach to the extended Middle East – from Morocco to Pakistan – basing it on dialogue with adversaries. “We are ready to extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”, stated Obama in his inaugural address in January 2009, with Ali Khamenei’s Iran being the most obvious intended target. From that day on, Obama has sought a dialogue with the supreme leader of the Islamic Revolution. At least two secret, personal letters have paved the way for a secret communication channel via Oman that ultimately led to negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear program and the subsequent agreement in Lausanne. 

The significance here lies not so much in the text of a document riddled with ambiguity – beginning with its 15- year validity – but in Obama’s political objective of transforming Iran from an enemy into a partner, part of a realpolitik approach that aims to improve the stability of the Middle East.

This pragmatic move, reminiscent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s dealings with Mao’s China in the early ’70s, is based on the belief that Shiite fundamentalism could morph from a source of disruption into a pillar of stability. The approach has ended up dividing the US, upsetting the Middle East, distancing Washington from its traditional Israeli and Sunni allies, and could be easily reversed by the 45th President. But what matters most to Obama is demonstrating that one can come to terms with one’s enemies.

The confirmation of this approach lies in the many efforts made in this direction: beginning with the handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago; followed by the removal of the embargo against Cuba and the Castro brothers; the credit afforded to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood when they ruled Egypt under President Mohammed Morsi; and negotiations with the Afghan Taliban mediated by Qatar.

Wherever America has encountered an enemy, whether for historical or ideological reasons, Obama has taken the reconciliatory route. Not all of these policies have met expectations: the Taliban are still waging war in Afghanistan; Caracas after Chavez has become highly anti- American; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is tempted by violence; in Tehran, Khamenei still refers to America as the “Great Satan”; and while Cuba has resumed relations with Washington, exactly how things will pan out remains to be seen.

This approach to a presidential legacy is borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, the president that Obama most resembles. Lincoln governed America by surrounding himself with a team of advisers chosen from among fierce rivals. Moreover, after the bloody victory in the Civil War, he chose to let the defeated Confederate soldiers keep their weapons as an act of trust towards his former enemies as well as a first step in healing the dramatic rift and laying the foundation for a larger, more united and harmonious nation.

The choice to follow in Lincoln’s footsteps by showing goodwill towards 21st century adversaries sums up the identity of a president whose primary mission has been to soothe the suffering among communities, peoples and nations.

His enthusiasm in this regard has, however, resulted in a number of failures, starting with Obama’s attempt to resume bilateral relations with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s Russia. This gesture was viewed as a sign of weakness and prompted Moscow to be more aggressive on all fronts: the annexation of Crimea, further attacks on Ukraine, the defence of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, the military agreements with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and even the provocative sending of Russian strategic bombers into North American airspace. Every time Obama has made an opening, Moscow’s response has been to gain more ground in an attempt to redress the balance of power with Washington that has been seriously compromised since the USSR’s Cold War collapse.

Even with China, Obama’s results have been below par: the “global strategic cooperation” has not panned out; North Korea managed to carry out its first atomic tests; and Beijing’s aggressiveness towards its neighbouring countries has Japan, South Korea and Australia alarmed - to the point of predicting a regional conflict with unforeseeable consequences.

In this context, relations with the EU remain precarious primarily because they are linked to the fate of negotiations for the liberalisation of trade and investments, the priority of an international economic policy designed to create free trade areas straddling the Atlantic – as well as the Pacific – that may help to sustain growth for the US and its main economic partners.

And last but certainly not least, we come to the fight against terrorism. Obstinately attempting to establish dialogue with his adversaries, especially in the Muslim world, has not undermined Obama’s determination to continue the war begun by George W. Bush, albeit by different means. Rather than traditional military actions, Obama has opted for more secretive ones, carried out with the joint deployment of high-tech equipment and special forces. He planned, initiated and extended the use of drones to hunt down the most wanted terrorists – listed in a matrix that he himself authorised – carrying out attacks in dozens of countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq. As commander in chief, Obama has introduced the use of drones as a global weapon for engaging in a permanent battle against the terrorists that threaten the United States and its interests. Thus, the elimination of Osama bin Laden in his villa in Abbottabad on the night of 1 May 2011 marked the beginning of a new stage in the conflict that erupted following the 9/11 attacks.

While skilled in conducting covert operations, Obama has proven unsuited to leading traditional military campaigns. The ‘backseat leadership’ approach adopted in 2011 to support NATO operations against the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has thrown Libya into chaos. The same can be said of the anti-IS coalition, first set up in August 2014, which despite the involvement of over 60 countries has proven rather toothless against dossier OBAMA’S LEGACY an enemy that moves around in pick-up trucks.

In Libya and Syria-Iraq, Obama has always vetoed the use of troops on the ground, holding true to his new doctrine that favours special ops. Unfortunately this has undermined the global image of America, which is now viewed as listless, distracted and therefore weak.

For these reasons, Obama’s legacy in foreign policy and security is likely to put his successor to the test, whoever he or she is. Dialogue with the enemy exposes the US to risks that the next president might not wish to assume.

And the aggressive stances of Russia, China, Iran and the Islamic State caliph will force the new Oval Office tenant to react, attempting to reestablish America’s prestige and credibility in critical areas.