As Obama finally departs from the scene, this seems as good a moment as any to assess his Presidency.
In my opinion it has been a disastrous Presidency, which has hugely deepened divisions in America – a fact which more than any other explains the exaggerated reaction to his successor – and which has brought international relations to its most dangerous point of crisis since the end of the Second World War.
If that seems unduly harsh, then I would say that that is because whilst Obama has failed in every other respect, he has proved a genius in one respect, which is in his successful manipulation of opinion and of his own image, which seems to have been his main priority. The result is that much of what went catastrophically wrong during his Presidency has been successfully concealed, so that unlike his immediate predecessor George W. Bush, Obama’s reputation has – so far – emerged from his Presidency comparatively though undeservedly intact.
In assessing any US President the temptation of a foreign writer like myself is to focus unduly on his foreign policy and to underestimate his domestic policy, which for Americans is however what principally matters.
Obama’s supporters tend to give him high marks for his domestic policy. They claim that he successfully turned the US economy round after the 2008 financial crisis, and they also give him credit for Obamacare, which they consider a major step in addressing the ongoing catastrophe which is US health policy.
In my opinion the extent of both of these achievements is overstated.
By the time Obama became President the peak point of the financial crisis had already passed as a result of decisive if controversial Central Bank action – first and foremost by the US Federal Reserve Board – whilst Gordon Brown’s government in Britain had already led the way with its equally controversial policy of bailing out the banks.
Obama as President simply continued these policies, or to be more exact, he stood by as an interested and generally supportive bystander as they were put into effect.
The reason a global depression was avoided ultimately had little to do with him. His much vaunted $800 billion reflation programme had little effect on the economy, its importance being overshadowed by the far more important aggressive quantitative easing policies of the US Federal Reserve Board and of the other Western Central Banks. Importantly, despite Obama’s reflation policy, the condition of US infrastructure during his Presidency continued to deteriorate.
This is not a discussion about economics, and I will here merely state my belief that the action to avoid depression by bailing out banks and printing money will over time prove nothing short of disastrous, hugely inflating levels of debt in all the Western economies and leaving them in a much worst position than the one they were in before the crisis began.
What I would say is that one practical effect of this approach which has had important political consequences is that it has greatly increased social and economic inequality in all the major Western economies (Germany up to now has been the one important exception) as the dubious benefits of money printing and debt creation have disproportionately benefitted the already inordinately wealthy few at the expense of the increasingly indebted many.
As for Obamacare, its supporters need to ask themselves why unlike other policies to socialise health care costs – the NHS in Britain and Medicare and Medicaid in the US being obvious examples – it has so completely failed to win a critical mass of popular support, so that Donald Trump is now set to repeal it.
The short answer is that Obamacare has created a system which is so costly and inefficient, and which places so much of the economic burden on those it is supposed to help whilst rewarding the already grossly over-rewarded US health insurance industry even further, that it has never proved popular.
Given the political obstacles to genuine health reform in the US it is of course a moot point whether any other President could have done better. Whilst it is fair to make this point, I cannot see how a health care reform which unlike Medicare and Medicaid is so fragile that it looks like being swept away so soon after Obama leaves office can be called a success.
Obama has also lent his support to issues like climate change, LGBT rights, and other social issues.
In my opinion these are important issues. However on climate change no breakthrough has been achieved, and the breakdown in international relations over which Obama has presided during his Presidency (see below) has ensured that there can be none, since without international cooperation effective action on climate change is impossible.
On LGBT rights and other social questions Obama’s role has been minimal, with the heavy lifting done by others within US society over previous decades, whilst the economic conditions of black Americans – for perfectly understandable reasons Obama’s most loyal supporters – have actually deteriorated during his Presidency.
Indeed to the extent that Obama and other leading politicians in the Democratic Party have involved themselves in these issues, by seeking to use them to construct a political coalition based on them they have actually exacerbated what were already existing divisions within US society.
It is sometimes said that one of the reasons Obama as President achieved so little in domestic policy was because of the relentless hostility to him of his Republican opponents.
To a certain extent this is true, though the extent of this hostility has always seemed to me overstated. What this point anyway however ignores is the degree to which Obama by his own behaviour has contributed to it. Instead of personally reaching out to his opponents as Lincoln and Reagan once did, Obama preferred to withdraw into the solitude of the White House and the golf course, cutting an impossibly remote figure, leaving Republicans he might have charmed and won over feeling unwanted and left out in the cold. Unsurprisingly they turned on him.
However it is Obama’s mismanagement of international relations which will ultimately condemn the reputation of his Presidency.
In my opinion the fundamental cause of this failure is that Obama has never understood or tried to understand the international system, or that the most important task of a modern statesman is to preserve peace, and that the key to doing this is through the successful management of relations between the three countries that are the world’s Great Powers: the US, China and Russia.
This is especially tragic since the conditions for doing this were never better than at the start of Obama’s Presidency.
The US’s key areas of interest are in north west Europe, the northern Pacific, and the Middle East. Russia’s primary areas of interest are the territories of the former USSR. China’s main focus is Taiwan and the South China Sea.
None of these areas of interest overlap with each other in the way that say the Balkans overlapped as a competing area of interest between the Great Powers before the First World War. Moreover both China and Russia are for the moment principally focused on their economic development and have no wish at present to challenge the global role of the US and its leading position in the world economy.
That should have provided a strong basis for an effective system of cooperation between the three Great Powers, which would have made it possible to manage international relations successfully and to preserve peace.
In the event, instead of managing successfully relations with the other two Great Powers – China and Russia – the US under Obama has disastrously mismanaged them and drifted into confrontation with both of them.
This is in part because of Obama’s disdain for their leaders – which he is incapable of keeping hidden but instead foolishly broadcasts to the world – but it is mainly due to his utter disregard for their interests, which he doesn’t seem able to understand or even acknowledge.
Thus he has allowed the US to drift into a confrontation with China in the South China Sea and with Russia in Ukraine, even though as his interviews last year with The Atlantic show, he understands that China and Russia care about these regions in a way the US does not and will never do, and therefore will always have “escalatory dominance” over the US in both of them.
Beyond this there is the issue of Obama’s manipulative approach to relations with both Great Powers.
In the case of Russia he secured a major nuclear arms treaty by giving the Russians the clearest impression that he was going to give up the preceding Bush administration’s policies of installing ballistic missile interceptors in eastern Europe and its drive to draw Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Instead, once the nuclear arms agreement had been secured, Obama doubled down on both of the Bush administration’s policies, pushing ahead with the anti ballistic missile deployments in eastern Europe, and sponsoring an anti-Russian, pro-US coup against the democratically elected government of Ukraine, whose ultimate objective – as repeatedly announced by its leaders – was to bring Ukraine into NATO.
In the case of China Obama’s mishandling of relations was equally bad, though in the West it has attracted less attention. At one and the same time he has appeared to encourage China to enlarge its role in the world economy, whilst simultaneously declaring a US “pivot to Asia” transparently intended to “contain” China and to mobilise the south east Asian states against it. He has also – incredibly – allowed the US navy to discuss in public its plans for an economic blockade of China’s coast.
Understandably enough, Obama ended his Presidency with neither the Chinese nor the Russians trusting him. The result is that the Russian-Chinese alliance – still embryonic when Obama became President – has now become full-fledged and irreversible and increasingly openly directed at the US, as the Chinese and the Russians – under pressure from Obama and previously Bush – have drawn together to oppose it.
Obama’s disastrous habit of making promises which he didn’t keep was unfortunately a hallmark of his whole conduct of foreign relations, and not just of his relations with the leaders of China and Russia.
In 2011 Obama assured not just the Russians and the Chinese but several other world leaders – including notably President Zuma of South Africa in a personal call – that the US had no plan for regime change in Libya. As soon as these leaders agreed to a UN Security Council Resolution that allowed limited military action in Libya to protect civilians but which stopped well short of authorising regime change, he used it justify a far greater military intervention in Libya than he had promised, which ended first with regime change and then with chaos.
In 2011 Obama persuaded Turkish President Erdogan to support his regime change policy in Syria, leading Erdogan to think the US would see it through, if necessary by military action. In the event the US failed to carry out military action to see its policy of regime change in Syria through, leaving Erdogan and Turkey high and dry, and with relations between Obama and Erdogan, and between the US and Turkey, in crisis.
Obama led the Iranians to believe that in the event they agreed to the nuclear deal he wanted from them, all the financial sanctions imposed on Iran would be lifted. In the event once Obama got his nuclear agreement many of the sanctions remained in place, with the US Treasury Department continuing to enforce them.
This serial habit of making and breaking promises has had a corrosive effect on international relations. By shattering trust between leaders it has made effective conflict management all but impossible, most disastrously during the Syrian crisis where painstaking negotiations with the Russians in the end led nowhere.
The result is that instead of cooperation between the three Great Powers there is mistrust and conflict between them, and instead of peace and successful conflict prevention there are now conflicts in almost every potential flashpoint in the world, with the US involved in all of them – in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and in the South China Sea – and losing every one of them.
The most dangerous moment of all came in October, with the US military facing off against the Russian military in Syria, in what was the first outright confrontation between the militaries of the two military superpowers since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, and being forced to back down. The only reason Obama’s reputation has survived this humiliation – arguably the greatest humiliation the US has suffered since the fall of Saigon – is because the Western media intentionally suppressed news of it.
In this climate of conflict – with Obama’s the first Presidency in US history over the course of which the US has been engaged in fighting somewhere every single day – monsters like ISIS have been able to breed and grow to appalling power. It should be said clearly that ISIS’s success and continued existence would be impossible in any well functioning system of international relations, and is the direct product of the breakdown of the current system of international relations, for which Obama must take most of the blame.
Unfortunately it does not end there.
Obama’s habitual way of concealing his failures has been to use the media – with which he has strong connections and which is predisposed to be very supportive of him – to vilify his opponents, something clearly evident in Obama’s handling of US domestic politics, but which has reached unheard of levels in his increasingly personal campaign against the man he has clearly come to think of as his personal nemesis: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Needless to say this has poisoned the international atmosphere even further, whilst fostering a dangerously hysterical and paranoid atmosphere across the West.
Where the proper function of a US President should be to calm fears and passions, Obama has instead increased them to levels not seen the 1940s and 1950s, triggering ugly witch hunts of the like the US and the West have not seen since the McCarthy era.
The result is that anyone today who calls for an improvement in relations with Russia – something essential in order to ensure world peace – risks being called a “useful idiot” or a Russian stooge, even if he is the US’s formerly most revered expert on Russia – Professor Stephen Cohen – or if he is no less a person than Obama’s successor – Donald Trump – who is now President of the United States.
It is a disastrous legacy of a man who has genuine intellectual gifts combined with the charisma to be a genuinely transformative President, but who was however never quite as intelligent or as well-informed as he always believed himself to be.
The result is that Obama departs the Presidency bequeathing to his successor a deeply divided country, and an unsettled and fraught international situation, which it will require massive work to put right.