EIGHT years ago, a frisson of excitement ran through the world as Obama became the first black man in the White House. It was a culmination that bid fair to be a game-changing moment, not just for America but also for the world. His oratory, his political and human rights activism, his opposition to war with Iraq, his inclusive vision, his beautiful family, his intelligence and composure, and his unfailing courtesy and humour made him an icon even before he embarked on his presidential voyage.
It was expected Obama would bring Americans together under the banner of ‘hope and change’ and ‘yes, we can’. He would renew the promise of America to a divided nation and a jaded world. He was progressive without being radical. He connected with the deprived at home and the denied abroad in a way that nothing seemed impossible. Although he inherited a collapsed economy and a polarised world, he would gather the best of minds and reach out to the worst of adversaries to forge a practical answer to every challenge.
Or so we hoped. In the event, Obama did achieve a number of things. Obamacare provided insurance to around 25 million Americans who had no health cover. He restored growth and jobs within a relatively weak recovery. He instituted a number of legislative and regulation reforms if not basic financial reform including sending criminal Wall Street ‘banksters’ to prison. Given the implacable and half-crazed Republican opposition that controlled Congress, these achievements were noteworthy.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Pakistan have all been disasters for Obama.
Obama was prematurely awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for ‘resetting’ relations with Russia, including the negotiation of a nuclear arms agreement. He was embarrassed by the award so early in his tenure and probably wished to win it again in order to deserve it. Late in the day, he made historical breakthroughs with his visit to Cuba and reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. However, none of these achievements are assured of survival under Trump. Moreover, US relations with Russia plummeted to the lowest since the Cuban missile crisis. He failed to fulfil his promise to shut down the Guantanamo detention camp.
Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Pakistan have all been disasters for Obama. His China policy turned out to be contradictory and counterproductive rather than balanced and foresighted. His spat with Netanyahu merely irritated but did not pressure Israel in the least. It produced nothing in the way of progress towards a sustained dialogue for a durable two-state solution. Nor did it alleviate the horrendous political and human rights situation of the Palestinians.
Obama led the US to defeat and humiliation in Syria while becoming party to the indescribable butchery and displacement of its citizens. He effectively put on hold and partially reversed his decision to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq. He ‘led from behind’ to bring about the wanton murder of the Libyan leader Gaddafi and the destruction of Libya. His sanctions on Russia and containment of China brought these two mutually suspicious great powers together in an alliance and strategy that threatens to minimise the relevance and influence of the US on the future course of Asian developments.
Obama’s massive escalation of the use of drones in what was effectively a global assassination programme, his similarly massive expansion of special (black) operations and airpower to replace a ‘boots on the ground’ military strategy, his CIA- and NSA-conducted cyber-intelligence warfare against friend and foe alike, and his overseeing an American and global economy that exceeded all historical records of inequality severely marred his moral stature and his presidency. Oxfam has revealed that the eight richest people on earth (including six from the US) have a combined income greater than half the entire global population ie 3.6 billion people! What could be more evil and globally destabilising?
Such inhuman inequality accounts for much of the rise of political fascism in the West. Similarly, continued Western state terrorism in support of discriminatory and unjust policies abroad (particularly in the Middle East) enabled non-state terrorism to become immune to military defeats. Historians will question what Obama did to counter these trends. Regarding gun control and homicidal police racism in the US, Obama was appalled but largely helpless. On climate change, however, Obama consistently fought for a sensible survival strategy against a lunatic domestic opposition and helped achieve a weak Paris Agreement, which his successor is threatening to tear up.
With regard to Pakistan, bilateral relations are at a mutually unsatisfactory level for which Pakistan is as much to blame as the US. Given Pakistan’s centrality to peace in Afghanistan, over eight years Obama should at least have found time for a visit to reset an important relationship. This would, however, have required him to pay greater attention to the volatile situation in India-held Kashmir, which if not addressed will dangerously feed into the prospect of an India-Pakistan nuclear confrontation. India-Pakistan relations are critical for both countries. But without sustained effort by a third country that has leverage with both, positive movement on the core issues of Kashmir and terrorist violence seems unlikely. Obama could have done much more than he did.
Tragically, Obama paved the way for his political nemesis Trump to succeed him and threaten everything he achieved and sought to achieve. He grievously erred in ignoring Sanders. Obama, a fine man in so many ways, ultimately failed largely because of a demented opposition and his own risk aversion. Trump may be an uncouth and narcissistic ignoramus destined for ignominy. He risks early impeachment and the loss of his own electoral base. Ironically, Obama exits with the highest approval rating of a departing president while Trumps comes in with the lowest. Nevertheless, Trump’s views on Russia and Nato are more realistic than Obama’s. He also claims to be a deal-maker who will not risk war. If he doesn’t sink himself within his first two years, he might actually achieve more than the far more sophisticated and talented Obama. Sadly, the legacy of Obama will be that he flattered only to deceive.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan. He was a member of the Abbottabad Commission.