Barack Obama’s foreign policy has been described as a ‘continuous disaster’. Sadly, the ongoing failure of his policies has extended well beyond his presidency; we are all still living with its consequences. From the shores of Cuba to the mountains of Afghanistan, despots, dictators, theocrats and terrorists were all emboldened as they faced a president who would let them run riot without facing any consequences.
The Obama administration held a passionate belief that the multitude of problems in the world could be reset through outreach to adversaries, that acts of kindness would be reciprocated, concessions to aggressors would disabuse them of their misguided ways, and most of all, that ‘negotiation is not appeasement’. Obama was wrong. His foreign policy was based upon intellectual and factual quicksand. America lost its power of deterrence which quickly emboldened enemies of the West. The world in which we live today is now far more dangerous than when he began his term in office. Indeed, once hard-won deterrence is lost, it is almost impossible to restore without huge sacrifice, danger and cost. During Obama’s tenure, America certainly lost its deterrence capability. Let us briefly recap Obama foreign policy.
Obama began initially losing America’s deterrence by conveying to the world that he had no stomach for a protracted conflict. He did this through his removal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, American forces were withdrawn having just made extensive gains following ‘The Surge’ under George W. Bush in which sectarian violence and Islamist attacks were curtailed whilst drastically improving the dire situation for the average Iraqi. The power vacuum which was created was immediately filled by the Islamic State who carried out blitzkriegs across the country, as well as inspiring a generation of Jihadis to kill thousands of people across the world. In Afghanistan, American troops were withdrawn before the infamous Kabul-Kandahar highway could be completed, essential for restoring law and order to the country. There, too, land was lost with the Taliban recapturing vast swathes of the country formerly held by coalition forces.
On South America, Obama promised to “only visit Cuba if liberty and freedom had increased on the island”, yet the reality is that he attempted to normalise Cuban-US relations, as thousands of Cubans fled the Communist regime with nothing but car tyres to float across the Gulf of Mexico.
On radical Islamic terrorism, Obama was even worse. Obama assured us that Al-Qaeda was ‘on the run’, and that the Islamic State was a ‘JV’ (junior varsity) organization. The fact that an Islamic State massacre occurred at a Jewish supermarket in Paris was merely ‘random’, instead of the blatant antisemitism derived from Islamism. Aside from releasing Guantanamo inmates, he believed that ‘violent extremism’, ‘workplace violence’, or ‘man-caused disaster’, better described radical Islamic terrorism rather than ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. All of this alongside his administration’s bizarre assertions that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was ‘largely secular’, and that ‘jihad’ did not mean using force to spread Islam, earned the US contempt instead of support.
On Syria, the American administration told the world that any use of chemical weapons in Syria constituted a ‘red line’ which would lead to American intervention. Soon after, the Assad Regime attacked a rebel-controlled area of the Damascus suburbs with chemical weapons, killing more than 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children. This occurred multiple times and Obama did nothing. This signalled to the world that the United States of America, a beacon of freedom and democracy, would not keep to its word even when people were being gassed to death.
Yet the Iran nuclear deal was the apex of Obama’s appeasement approach. Despite abducting US sailors, carrying out illegal ballistic missile tests, supporting terrorism and regional expansionism, Iran was afforded billions of dollars in sanction relief. The Obama administration signalled that red lines and bad behaviour would be ignored if it were more convenient for the administration to do nothing. As a result, Iran has been greatly emboldened in its colonisation of the Middle East, further degrading the region into a cold-war with Iran exerting control over Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and the Gaza Strip.
All along, Russian President Vladimir Putin understood the man better. In 2014, he decided to annex Crimea and occupy two eastern provinces of Ukraine, knowing that the President would do absolutely nothing to help Ukraine. Moreover, Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War, uncritically supporting Assad and ensuring his continued survival, all the while making the White House appear to be largely irrelevant in the matter of Syria’s future. Obama’s concessions and promises to be flexible helped turn a wary but opportunistic Putin into a bold aggressor, assured in the knowledge that he would never have to account for his belligerence. Similarly, China began claiming large areas of the South China Sea in order to intimidate its neighbours. North Korea, too, felt more at liberty to massively expand its nuclear programme and increase the rhetoric of a second war with the South, as well as threatening Western cities.
All of these disasters are down to Obama’s dreadful foreign policy. A legacy of empowered and emboldened brutal autocrats, dictators and various terrorist organisations; all safe in the knowledge that their actions had no consequences. It is often noted that what makes a truly great leader is someone who has the strength to take decisions which, although are unpopular at the time, prove to be unequivocally right – Churchill’s stand against the Nazis comes to mind. Obama was never willing to make these unpopular decisions; now he has forced future generations to make far more dangerous and unpopular decisions later down the line. Despite his preaching of hope, change and peace, Obama set the stage for conflict. Popular opinion is always favourable to the President who offers the path of least resistance while they are in office – but history is not as kind after they leave.
Harry Mayo is a graduate of King’s College London.