Obama’s Foreign Policy Legacy


The approaching end of the Obama administration has led to high records of approval ratings and widespread support for the outgoing president, probably as with all presidents it will rise over time. But popularity these days is a rather frivolous concept. Barack Obama took office at a time when international affairs and foreign policy could only improve after the disastrous Bush administration. Ironically, eight years later, American citizens chose such a controversial figure as Donald Trump to be the new president, generating a collective feeling that things can only worsen. Therefore, it is relevant to reevaluate his legacy and main foreign policy decisions—not popularity or feelings—and the sort of actions that will impact years to come.

During his first campaign, Obama passionately expressed is concerns with Guantanamo Bay, stating the “we have compromised our most precious values.” During his second day in office, he issued an executive order directing the prison to be shut down within a year. Two terms in office later, the prison remains open, holding people captive indefinitely without a trial and contrary to the rule of law and the ideals of a democratic judicial system. Undoubtedly Obama wanted to close Guantanamo, but he lacked determination, effort and iron will to keep his promise and break with the Bush-Cheney era. Instead, Obama let the Pentagon and Congress overplay the President of the United States and his own declared principles with relative ease.

In June 2009, during a historic speech in Cairo with the intention to address the Islamic world, Obama said, “The United States and Muslims around the world, we seek a new way forward, one (relationship) based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” He described the situation of Palestinian people as “intolerable” and promised a two states solution “where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” Yet Obama made no progress on the issue, on the contrary he supported Israel’s isolation of the Gaza Strip and opposed Palestine’s bid to gain UN state recognition. In addition, while critical with Israeli settlement expansion under Obama’s watch, 13,000 new settlements have been built in the West Bank since 2009. It appears that Obama’s words in Cairo—“with all the patience and dedication that the task requires”—were only the result of charisma, persuasive skills and effective communication, hiding a manifest lack of action and conviction.

Obama’s administration inherited a very complex and volatile situation in the Middle East. He opposed intervention of Iraq and criticised former President Bush’s chain of decisions during the invasion of the country. Interestingly enough, the withdrawal of US forces only occurred in 2011, but later Obama launched new military attacks in Iraq after ISIL captured Mosul in 2014. At that point, rhetoric was the only element left from its own policy against large-scale military interventions. Certainly the rise of ISIL is a consequence of Obama’s policy towards Syria as much as it is of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Obama Administration’s policy of intervention through proxies in Syria and Libya have proven a major mistake of historic negative consequences for the region and the world.

When the protests broke out against Assad and Gaddafi regimes, Western powers, led by the Obama government, provided the resources to militarise those protests with the help of Gulf Arab States and Turkey. The new policy was to train and arm the Sunni militants against the Syrian and Libyan regime from 2011 onward, and more importantly conferring international legitimacy to an armed insurgency. In order to shed a positive light, the Western establishments used the power of mainstream media to fabricate a narrative of freedom struggle against oppressing evil tyrants. Today, it is indisputable that more than 90% of the militias operating in Syria and Libya are either Islamic jihadist or armed tribesmen. Among those the most widely known are the Islamic State (ISIL) and the different branches of al Qaeda in the region.

More than 5 years later, after the unrest that ended in the ousting and killing of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya remains without any government or authority, Tripoli is ruled by the militia Libya Dawn from Misrata, Benghazi is under control of Khalifa Haftar with support of Egypt, Sirte was the stronghold of ISIL until last December, and the Salafist Islamist militia Ansar al-Sharia is also present in Libya. All in all, Libya is in complete chaos, suffering a new civil war between several factions.

On the other hand, Obama leaves a full-scale Sunni-Shia conflict in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, with repercussions throughout the whole region. The realness of Syria has proven Obama’s doctrine a complete failure in such a degree that the role usually played by US is now played by Russia. It is a very symbolic fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered the Astana talks and agreed to act as guarantors of a nationwide Syrian ceasefire, an agreement where Washington played no role in negotiating.

Yemen is a forgotten conflict and a humanitarian catastrophe. The civil war and mainly the Saudi led coalition has destroyed the country and turned it into a failed state. The Obama administration has played a key role supporting the Saudi monarchy. Barack Obama leaves office with the reproachable record of having been the US president who sold the most weapons to Saudi Arabia, and more importantly, during a time when the region is very volatile and unstable. The Saudi bombings have been severely condemned by the international community and the UN, as the killings are counted by the thousands and people in humanitarian need by the millions.

President Obama passes on a complex foreign policy to the new administration. He has failed to end inherited conflicts as Iraq and Afghanistan, and legates the woes of a raging civil war in Syria that he has been helpless to stop. Moreover, the highly controversial drone strikes campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have amounted to ten times more than during Bush’s terms. Only during 2016 the number of bombs dropped by the US throughout the world summed more than 26,000. In order to take a perspective, the words of Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, “We’re expending munitions faster than we can replenish them,” perfectly illustrate the magnitude of air strikes. In addition, the aftermath of the 2011 intervention in Libya has brought a new civil war in the country. In Yemen, the US supports the brutal Saudi-led coalition.

On the other hand, the election of Donald Trump endangers the biggest diplomatic achievements of the Obama era as the rapprochement with Cuba or the Iran nuclear deal, considered a historical agreement which lifted the long-lasting sanctions against Iran in exchange for not developing its nuclear military programme.

In 2008, Obama brought flashes of optimism and recalled a sense of hope to a country immersed in various wars on foreign soil and with a very damaged reputation abroad. Internationally, President Obama was seen as an eloquent and charismatic champion to put one’s trust in so as to achieve a real change and a much desired peace. A man awarded with a Nobel Peace prize a few months after taking office and who, in a hindsight, did nothing to deserve it along the next seven years, Obama was supposed to be a unifier, and he undeniably shares responsibility for the ascent and arrival of Donald Trump. Eight years ago a message of hope and change echoed the world, at that moment it was impossible to anticipate the disastrous international current scenario. Barack Obama is the first two-term American president to have presided over war every day of his tenure in office.