Goodbye, Mr President

Air Force One Maryland
American president Barack Obama disembarks Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 6, 2015 (White House/Chuck Kennedy)

I wasn’t a fan of Barack Obama eight years ago, when we started the Atlantic Sentinel. It unnerved me how many people, especially here in Europe, fell over themselves to praise the new president and I disagreed with his policies.

Now I’m sad to see him go.

It’s not just that the Democrat looks like a paragon of grace and wisdom compared to his Republican successor, although Donald Trump’s shortcomings in both regards are profound.

It’s that I’ve become less right-wing and Obama was a better president in his second term than in his first. Read more “Goodbye, Mr President”

The B+ Presidency of Barack Obama

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. Read more “The B+ Presidency of Barack Obama”

A Look Back at Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

Xi Jinping Barack Obama
Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Barack Obama of the United States speak at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 8, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

Barack Obama was elected at a time when political anxiety in America was relatively high, particularly among Democratic voters who disliked George W. Bush’s seeming lack of sophistication.

The feeling was that the United States had wasted trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan and thus helped to ruin America’s economy and divert attention away from more serious adversaries like Russia and especially China.

The economic failure was seen as being confirmed by the financial crisis that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers a month or so before the election.

The foreign policy failure was seen as being confirmed by, among other things, Russia’s invasion of Georgia three months before the election, followed one day later by the extravagant opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. Read more “A Look Back at Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy”

Don’t Blame Obama for Everything That Went Wrong in the World

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama observes the annual Memorial Day ceremony at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Illinois, May 31, 2010 (White House/Pete Souza)

Looking back on Barack Obama’s presidency, which expires next year, Walter Russell Mead, a centrist observer of American politics, argues in The American Interest that this president has failed to balance “a commitment to human rights and the niceties of American liberal ideology with a strong policy in defense of basic American security interests.”

The result, he argues, is a world “less safe for both human rights and for American security.”

Those are strong words and Mead doesn’t always convince when he tries to back them up.

He sees many failures:

The reconciliation with the Sunni world? The reset with Russia? Stabilizing the Middle East by tilting toward Iran? The Libya invasion? The Syria abstention? The “pivot to Asia” was supposed to be the centerpiece of Obama’s global strategy; instead the waning months of the Obama Administration have seen an important American ally pivot toward China in the most public and humiliating way possible.

This is not altogether wrong. The “reset” with Russia was naive. Obama betted on Dmitri Medvedev and he better wrong. He never understood Vladimir Putin. The intervention in Libya was halfhearted and Western allies did not think through the aftermath — which is especially damning given how critical Obama (rightly) was about the Bush Administration’s lack of postwar planning in Iraq.

But the Democrat’s record is more mixed in the other areas Mead lists, where he overlooks the agency of the foreign governments and leaders involved. Read more “Don’t Blame Obama for Everything That Went Wrong in the World”

Republicans Are In No Position to Criticize Obama on Europe

Barack Obama Angela Merkel François Hollande Matteo Renzi
American president Barack Obama speaks with German chancellor Angela Merkel and other world leaders at the G7 summit in Bavaria, June 11, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

Barack Obama is no longer revered in Europe, but Politico reminds us that he is still far more popular than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, was.

Which makes Republican criticism of his European policy a little hard to swallow.

This isn’t just about popularity. When Europe took offense at Bush’s unilateralist, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later policy, it had real consequences: France and Germany opposed the Iraq War, leading to the deepest rift in transatlantic relations in decades. It gave new purpose to European defense cooperation outside NATO, which undermined the alliance’s cohesiveness.

Obama has acted multilaterally and more diplomatically. This, too, has had a real impact. Read more “Republicans Are In No Position to Criticize Obama on Europe”

Obama Gets Economic Challenge Right, Regulations Wrong

Barack Obama Shinzō Abe
American president Barack Obama and Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe walk to a state dinner at the White House in Washington DC, April 28, 2015 (White House/Pete Souza)

Reading Bloomberg Businessweek‘s interview with Barack Obama, I get the sense the president understands the big economic and social challenges of our time but still underestimates the impact of regulation on businesses. Read more “Obama Gets Economic Challenge Right, Regulations Wrong”

You’re So Vain: Americans and Britain’s EU Referendum

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Green Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 18 (White House/Pete Souza)

There is a tendency in the United States to make Britain’s EU referendum all about America. Commentator wonder what effect it will have on transatlantic relations, given Britain’s “special relationship” with the United States. They speculate what it will mean for Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions, given that his nativist platform isn’t too dissimilar from the leave campaign in the UK.

Some of this is self-indulgent, some of it makes sense.

The best reflections can be found in The American Interest. Walter Russell Mead writes that the island nation’s exit is a blow to the West as a whole. Read more “You’re So Vain: Americans and Britain’s EU Referendum”

Syria Dissenters Unlikely to Persuade Obama

Some fifty American diplomats took the unusual step last week of publicly separating themselves from President Barack Obama’s Syria policy. They submitted a cable that calls for military intervention and then leaked it to the press.

Secretary of State John Kerry, who is known to have advocated a more expansive American involvement in the Syrian war, sided with the dissidents, telling reporters, “It’s an important statement.”

It made for some great headlines, but probably won’t lead to more than that.

The fact that the diplomats felt compelled to argue their case through the media suggests their position is a weak one. If the president took their recommendations seriously, they wouldn’t have needed to go public with them. Read more “Syria Dissenters Unlikely to Persuade Obama”

While Trump Talks, Obama Routs Islamic State

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

While Donald Trump was hectoring the man he hopes to succeed next year for supposedly falling short in the fight against Islamic terrorism, President Barack Obama reminded Americans on Tuesday that his administration is gradually eradicating the self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

It’s unclear to what extent the group was involved in the shooting at a Florida gay nightclub this weekend that killed nearly fifty people. It rather looks like the shooter, Omar Mateen, an American citizen of Afghan descent, was motivated by anti-gay bigotry more than anything else and only professed his allegiance to the Islamic State at the last minute.

Whatever the Islamic State’s role, Obama is determined to root it out. But — and this is what separates him from many Republicans, including Trump — he is not losing his mind and pretending that a ragtag band of jihadists in the desert of the Middle East poses an existential threat to the United States. Read more “While Trump Talks, Obama Routs Islamic State”

There Is No Disengagement Under Obama

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Green Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 18 (White House/Pete Souza)

Derek Chollet makes a compelling argument at Defense One against what he calls the “myth” of American disengagement.

Chollet, who is a former assistant secretary of defense and currently with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, demonstrates region by region that America’s retreat under Barack Obama is hugely overstated.

Much of this is rather a rebalancing of American priorities, away from the Middle East and toward the Far East, for example, as well as a more discriminate application of American power, away from vast military deployments and toward what is called offshore balancing.

The Atlantic Sentinel discussed that shift at length last year.

Where Chollet is worth quoting here is when he wonders why this myth of disengagement endures. Read more “There Is No Disengagement Under Obama”