Before he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama won the peacenik vote. When he ran for president in 2008, he was the one aiming to "turn the page" on America's failed foreign policy. He criticized the Iraq War as a distraction from the real business in Afghanistan. And yet, Obama is going to hand his successor more foreign policy disasters than he inherited.
That's not stopping Obama from advertising his foreign policy legacy. He has defended his administration's supposed philosophy of "Don't do stupid sh--." Who could disagree with "Don't do stupid sh--"?
President Obama certainly inherited a mess. President George W. Bush's surge in Iraq had left the United States an honorable-looking exit strategy, but Bush's signature on a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government had also guaranteed the departure of U.S. forces before real political reconciliation had happened in Iraq. This almost ensured Sunni disaffection from the Baghdad government, which fueled the rise of ISIS, which, in turn, forced Obama's hand to return U.S. forces to Iraq.
But while the U.S. was on temporary holiday from Iraq, Obama chose to pursue his own surge strategy in Afghanistan, sending 30,000 more troops into what has been the longest military engagement in American history. Now Obama is bringing them out again as part of his plan to completely wind down the war by the end of his presidency. And yet Afghanistan looks almost no different than it did when Obama took office. The U.S. and the personnel it trained act as a kind of guard for the capital city of Kabul, but the Taliban is still able to fire rockets at parliament and disappear back into the countryside. The Taliban's attacks still come in a long seasonal wave, and are returning again this year, like clockwork.
Then there's Saudi Arabia. Obama has advertised over and over again his frustration with the country, our longtime ally and the traditional counterweight to Iran in the region. And yet the U.S. government persists in doing a great deal of logistical work helping Saudi Arabia conduct a brutal and dishonorable war in neighboring Yemen. Obama used to worry aloud, as a constitutional scholar, about the executive branch's runaway war powers, but the war that the United States is helping Saudi Arabia conduct in Yemen is barely even discussed in the media, let alone by the American people and their representatives.
What about Libya? After the U.S. spent a decade knocking over governments in the Middle East and reaping the Islamist whirlwind, you'd think the Obama administration would have learned its lesson. But the wise men in the White House still convinced themselves to try, try again and help topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya in 2011. That country has ever since struggled to field a legitimate-looking government and is now home to a colonial outpost for ISIS.
And was it really the master plan to hand over Libya to Europe? What led Obama to believe that Europe would follow up and make sure that stupid sh-- didn't happen, like the establishment of several rival governments drawing from the same oil wealth? Seems like more stupid ideas to me.
Obama brags about turning away from the pressure to involve America more deeply in Syria. Perhaps that was a good idea, given the results of the involvement America does have. As I write, two different militias that the United States government has armed in Syria are fighting each other with U.S. weapons. In effect, the CIA's weapons are shooting at weapons from the Pentagon. This is the legacy of not doing stupid sh--.
George W. Bush had believed in a democratic domino theory in the Middle East, where a transformed Iraq would leave the region on a path toward liberalization. By the time he left office, popular movements had already resulted in Islamism and terrorism in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories. Somehow, the Obama administration didn't notice this and welcomed the upheaval of the Arab Spring, quickly cutting the feet underneath longterm allies (of dubious value, sure), like the Mubarak regime in Egypt. The result energized Islamist movements in Egypt and led to an uptick of persecutions.
Beyond that, there is the refugee crisis in Europe, which is straining Europe's own remarkably tolerant and liberal political arrangements. This is a direct result of the failed state in Libya and the region-destabilizing war in Syria. Beyond even that, Obama will leave a legacy of nearly unrestricted and unsupervised drone warfare.
And yet I'm afraid afraid of what disasters await when America turns the page again this year.