Obama’s Quandary

America’s 43rd President, George W. Bush, is of course well known as possibly the greatest foreign policy failure among all the Presidents.

Let’s think for a moment about all his failures. Bush did not prevent 9/11. Bush did not capture Bin Laden after 9/11 had happened. Bush invaded Afghanistan, where his poorly managed occupation spawned a grinding insurgency which today still may develop into full-scale civil war. Bush subsequently invaded Iraq based on misleading information. There, too, massive planning and policy failures went on to produce thousands of casualties, fundamentalist insurgency and civil war. (Bush’s ‘surge’ of 2007 was a brief respite in this string of failures, but today this achievement appears to be collapsing under the pressure of Maliki’s majoritarian Shi’ite rule.) Meanwhile, Bush’s mess in Iraq improved the strategic environment for Iran (as well as adding motivation for its nuclear project), and it was probably during Bush’s term that North Korea passed the threshold of becoming a nuclear power. Finally, none of this is to note the debacle of Bush’s sanctioning of torture, the consequences of which are also still felt today. Ironically, of all Bush’s policies today it appears his much-maligned Freedom Agenda is relatively in the best shape, as countries beyond Iraq have taken up Bush’s banner of anti-dictatorial (though not always democratic) activism.

Surely this is as impressive list of failures as there ever was. Still, today Obama, too, is at risk of himself building a legacy of failure.

Here are some elements of Obama’s failure.

One of the major Obama initiatives post-Bush was to withdraw relatively quickly from Bush’s wars. This happened first in Iraq, but in Afghanistan too a withdrawal date was ‘preponed’ when Obama’s ‘surge’ there appeared less than successful. Today these decisions are at the cusp of catastrophe. In Afghanistan all that can be said is that whatever foothold there is for democracy and Western interests is highly precarious. No one knows what will happen as the US leaves in 2014.  More clearly disastrously, in Iraq handing over power to Maliki’s government has destroyed Bush’s surge gains, and the country appears mired in insurgent terrorism once again.

Obama’s probable failure in Iraq is compounded by a probable failure in Syria. There remains much to be said for Obama’s cautious, neo-isolationist approach to the conflict in Syria. But at the same time, it so far appears to have had terrible consequences for American interests and stability in the region. First, as noted here, it has given Russia the chance to reappear as a major power in the region. It is highly likely that an early introduction of American air power into the Syrian theater would have preempted this Russian gambit. What is more, as both Iraq and Syria appear now in de facto civil war, the conflicts would seem to have significant potential of combining into a single, larger sectarian cauldron. It always was in part Iraqi Sunni insurgents who inspired the armed revolution against Assad– so what is to stop the Sunni’s of Eastern Syria and Western Central Iraq from combining against their mutual foes?

Obama’s probable failure in Syria also says something about his attitude to wider developments in the Middle East. Obama began his Presidency with an (at least verbally) outstretched hand towards the Middle East’s Muslims. But he subsequently has reacted in dithering ways to the Arab Spring. Obama essentially ignored Iran’s Green Revolution in a vain attempt to forge some rapprochement with the Iran regime. Similarly, Obama’s supported the non-democratic Gulf States in their repression of protests and (partially) in their anti-Shi’ite crusade. On the other hand, Obama did nothing for long-time ally Mubarak in Egypt, and actively deposed the reformed Khaddafi in Libya, who to date is the single case of a dictator willingly abandoning their nuclear program. Neither Libya nor Egypt currently seem clear failures; their forms of democracy may well produce much better outcomes than the dictatorships that preceded them.  But what is clear is that Obama’s selective abandonment of former allies has taught his opponents a few lessons. Authoritarians like Assad know that there is no merit in attempts to ‘softly repress’ popular dissent, the way Mubarak had tried. Likewise those with WMD ambitions now know better than to ever abandon them. In both cases, weakness is your downfall. Furthermore, after Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq Obama’s policy in Libya constituted the final straw which galvanized Russia into abandoning any form of consiliation at the UN in favor of making an bold authoritarian stand.

Clearly this list does not include the emphatically unforced errors of Bush’s legacy. All the same, it’s thus far a potentially very problematic record that Obama is building. The growing chaos in Iraq and Syria in particular, abetted by Russia’s Libya-derived antagonism, are developments to watch with worry.

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