The B+ Presidency of Barack Obama

The Democrat defended American superpower at a time when lesser men might have lost it.

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama waits backstage before participating in a panel discussion in Atlanta, Georgia, March 29, 2016 (White House/Pete Souza)

The faded signs of “Hope and Change” still linger in the attics and closets of millions of Americans. I still have my old campaign t-shirt; I worked the phone bank in 2008 in Arizona, where ubiquitous caller ID screens let people decide if they were going to thank me or shout at me before they even picked up. “We ain’t no Democrats,” declared one woman, in what sounded like all caps.

A presidency whose base was inspired by a spiritual approach to politics, whose spiritualism promised a complete 180 from George W. Bush’s bloody wars and backward cultural practices, and who seemed transformational at the time, can be subject to exaggeration and projection. All Americans of age have a story about Barack Obama: he is the 9/11 of our political landscape, a seminal change that both changed so much and yet changed so little.

Evaluating Obama as a geopolitical leader demands a strict litmus test, though. How much did his presidency secure his nation state? How much did he stabilize it?

At the end, Obama was less of a transformation geopolitically than a transition: an essential step onto something else not yet realized.

Let’s break down our criteria:

Security: Did he keep America safe from major threats?

  • How much did he defend the vital American alliance network system?
  • How much did he prevent rival great powers from growing to become threats to the United States?
  • How well did he prevent hostile non-state actors from hijacking foreign governments and using them to do either of the above?

Stability: Did he help keep America from eating itself?

  • How well did Obama streamline the American government to ensure it ran well?
  • How well did Obama use state power to stabilize American society, both culturally and economically?

The geopolitical story of President Barack Obama is vast. There will be plenty who earn their doctorates on the subject in the coming years. So it’s important that we go forward knowing we just can’t cover everything. Instead, we’ll focus on the criteria above.

So, security, eh? The answer is he did a rather good job overall, especially in Europe

For the United States to remain a secure superpower, it must have strong alliances in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. The EU zone is still richer than the United States. To rearm it in any measure would be a huge challenge to the Americans. East Asia is also richer, though most of that is in China itself. Meanwhile, to keep both regions wealthy, both regions need vast amounts of energy, which right now means getting oil from the Middle East. So to supply its allies, America still needs a Middle Eastern alliance network centered on the Persian Gulf.

And to be fair Obama did a fair job of preserving all of those. He didn’t expand them: talks to do so in Ukraine actually helped bring about the Russian invasion in 2014. But even that wasn’t as bad as it may seem. The fear of Russian military adventurism brought NATO together to launch a relatively effective sanctions regime against Moscow. Obama healed Bush-era divides in Europe and helped France fight a war in Mali, NATO fight a war in Libya and reinforced Baltic states with American tripwire troops right on the Russian border. As Obama ends his second term, NATO looks more effective, more combat tested and more united than when he arrived.

Notch one for Obama, then.

And he kept Asia together as well

The same can be said of America’s Asian allies. Japan has agreed to burden share the gigantic cost of managing China’s rise: that is a medium-term win that’ll help give teeth to America’s alliance system there. South Korea and Japan are learning to act more like an Asian NATO than old rivals. That’s also good for the Americans.

When China tried to grab a vast air defense zone in November 2013, Obama flew bombers through it just to prove it didn’t matter to the Americans. (He hasn’t repeated the stunt since, however.)

More importantly, as China built islands to annex swathes of the South China Sea, Obama maintained naval patrols there to prove the islands don’t mean what Beijing hoped they did.

Neither of these events led to an adversarial relationship with China, which could have been disastrous during the tepid economic recovery. The last thing Obama needed was a trade war.

He also brought Myanmar out of the cold. This resource-rich, populous nation state on China’s southwestern flank is a major geopolitical prize and tempting it to the American camp is a major loss for Beijing.

Vietnam, spooked by China, also drew closer to the Americans in the Obama years. That job isn’t quite done, but Obama deserves plenty of credit for buying America a great deal more influence in Southeast Asia.

It’s been the tumultuous final months that’s challenged Obama the most in Asia. Rodrigo Duterte, the Trump-like Filipino president, has threatened to join the Chinese or Russian camps, yet has so far done nothing. That seems to be more Duterte’s personality than Filipino geopolitics at play: Filipinos still prefer friendship with America over China on both elite and citizen level. That can change, yet if it does, it won’t be on Obama’s watch.

So overall, Asia was mostly a win: advancing Japanese-Korean relations, containing Chinese ambitions and few upsets in the geopolitical system.

So it’s in the Middle East that his record is worst

Pulling out of Iraq in 2011 was a mistake; it wasn’t quite the disaster the original invasion had been, but leaving Iraq left an open door for the coming of the Islamic State, forcing America back into what it had just left.

Obama also — rightly — concluded that America could never secure the Middle East without Iran. But he gambled that he could do so through a nuclear deal with its current Islamic republic.

Worse, the Islamic republic has an ugly Shia supremacist bent, which propels elements of its state to arm militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Yemen.

Obama threw the dice, hoping that a deal would empower moderates and reform the Islamic Republic from within. That remains to be seen. We’ll know more come the May 2017 Iranian presidential elections, when Hassan Rouhani, the relative moderate who put his own political life on the line for the nuclear deal, may win a second term. If he does, it means Obama’s gamble has paid off; if he loses, especially to a hardliner, it’ll be a huge rebuke to Obama’s Middle Eastern legacy.

Obama also — as all presidents have — failed to bring peace to the Palestinians and Israelis, but he did important work rationalizing America’s relationship with Israel. Once a plucky, useful Cold War ally poised to strike Soviet-backed Syria and Egypt, Israel now needs America a lot more than the other way around. Israeli settlement building unsettles important allies, while Israeli occupation gives cheap propaganda to Sunni supremacists. It’s not that America should ditch Israel; it’s that Israel should have a peace deal, and soon, because not having one is harming America’s interests more than Israel’s military prowess is helping.

He also unsettled Gulf Arab allies when he did nothing to save Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian dictator. Obama had a doctrine of “Don’t do stupid shit,” which was supposed to be the anti-Bush doctrine. But it was also underlined with a moral message best illustrated by his 2009 Cairo speech.

Obama believed, as much of the West believed, that the Arab Spring was a democratic wind long overdue. It wasn’t. It was badly organized states collapsing because people had finally had enough, with those toppling the regime having few, if any, plans for the day after. It took a long time for the Obama Administration to realize that.

This wobbling of the US-Gulf Arab alliance led Obama to dumping arms on Saudi Arabia, as he had with Israel, to try to assuage their worries that he would abandon them for Iran or — just as bad — simply abandon them. The Saudis then turned these guns on Yemen’s pro-Iran Houthis, where they decided that if America could not roll back Iran, they would.

The blackest mark must, of course, be the Syrian Civil War. Obama expended much soft power on trying to solve the war. None of it helped. Even today, Russia and Turkey are trying to put together a peace deal absent the United States.

Obama leaves the Middle East messier than he found it. Once-secure allies feel unsafe while dangerous foes have gained ground. Having given geopolitical space to Russia is also a major threat to the United States: the last thing America wants is Russia rebuilding an alliance network there, even growing into the Persian Gulf, where it could dominate energy markets and blackmail close allies.

So what about those non-state actors?

Allowing the Islamic State to come about has created a potentially powerful ideological glue that could build an anti-American, Sunni supremacist superpower. A caliphate is a powerful tool any Sunni supremacist might wield to subdue everyone from Morocco to Indonesia. The twenty-first century is long. We have another 83 years to go. To presume such a thing can never happen is as bad as presuming Marx’ communists would never have a shot in the last century.

Al Qaeda has taken a beating, but the reality is that Al Qaeda was also hammered by President Bush, especially in Iraq. Obama’s killing of Osama bin Laden counts less than it would otherwise. The Islamic State is far more dangerous and capable, at least for now. Mosul is still in enemy hands, and it may fall to Trump to declare victory there.

What about stability? Did Obama stabilize America?

In many ways, yes. Health care reform was long overdue. Once upon a time, when the rest of the former Allies were nationalizing health care, Harry S. Truman tried to build something akin to Obamacare, but Truman tried at just the wrong moment, when anti-communist Republicans were able to paint Truman’s plan as a socialist plot. That was in the late 1940s.

Thus the Affordable Care Act, while imperfect, is an absolute step in the right direction of stability. It provides for Americans what they should have had some seventy years ago and it helps to address the vast wealth gap that can kill the geopolitical power of the United States. Even the Republicans, now wholly in power, have found that undoing it is dangerous. Should they do so, they will threaten the stability of the republic in a way unseen since the 1930s.

Obama’s left-of-center politics was a gentle pull toward a more state-centered future, one in which government guaranteed a simple quality of life. It inspired a vast backlash. But that is not completely Obama’s fault. We saw in 2008 the beginning of the Trump wave. As Sarah Palin toured the country, it was she, and the foam at the mouth conservatives she attracted, who presaged the era we are now in. Liberal Americans presumed that such folks were hyper minorities, crazy and defeatable; now they have organized well enough to elect a president.

Obama navigated the ending of the culture wars as well as anyone could. The era calls for implacable enemies in politics: this is a generational Crisis coming to a head. Obama managed that as well as possible.

There were mistakes, of course. Calling some of his opponents folks who “cling to their guns and Bibles” was always going to antagonize a hornet’s nest. So too was any promise he couldn’t keep. As Obamacare proved you could not, in fact, always keep your doctor (and why should you, from a stability perspective?), there grew an ever stronger backlash.

Perhaps most damning of all is that Obama neglected to support and train his own party. A personality of great proportions, he also oversaw the hollowing out and collapse of his own Democrats. They forgot how to do anything but follow Obama. They lost in 2010, 2014 and 2016. These elections without Obama proved that the Democrats had become little more than his personality cult. For allowing the Democrats to lose to Trump, in a year where by many metrics they should have won, is perhaps the most damning condemnation of Obama’s legacy to stability.

Still, for a man faced with great pressures, Obama deserves much credit

He was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who genuinely reshaped the world with his world vision. He was a fine placeholder: a competent steward for those who will come and use America’s might more effectively. His learning curve was vast; his enemies stubborn and irrational. If we are to assess his legacy, it is one of managing to keep America and its superpower status together at a time when lesser men might have lost it. That was no easy task, but opportunities he did squander.

It will fall now to the presidency of Donald J. Trump to carry on, or to lose, Obama’s hard-fought stalemate. In that, we can only hope his advisors have more wisdom that Trump does.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, January 11, 2017.