Barack Obama likes to credit himself with getting America to step back from the abyss of the Middle East. When he shops around the story of his legacy, the president says he was proudest of his decision not to follow the "Washington playbook" and commit to toppling the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
It would be a fitting story to tell of the man who ascended to the presidency while simultaneously winning a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama returns America's sword to its sheath, and earns the praise of his fans and admirers. Just as he passed on a better economy to his successor than the one he inherited from Bush, so he passed on a safer world.
Unfortunately this story is a lie from end to end. The world the next president will inherit is full of traps.
In Afghanistan, Obama has slowed down the pace of withdrawing troops. Corruption is rife, and there seems to be no progress on talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The latter has gained momentum and re-captured parts of the countryside. A continued drawdown after Obama's presidency may make his successor appear to be running from the Taliban.
In Iraq, American special forces are back on the ground as the U.S conducts airstrikes against ISIS. Although the U.S. seems to be sending ISIS into a smaller corner of the country, Iraq's political settlement is as shaky as ever, with Shia Muslims threatening to revolt.
In Syria, the U.S. wants to force Assad out of peace negotiations, and so acts to strengthen various rebel groups. The civil war is thus extended indefinitely, leading to increasing death totals. Russia acts to shore up Assad in negotiations, making Syria look more and more like a proxy war between two global nuclear powers.
The Libya conflict is not over either. The American people have even discovered, through simple communiques from the military, that it is engaged in extensive airstrikes there against ISIS — which itself was able to gain a foothold in the country after the Moammar Gadhafi government was toppled by U.S. air power. In the Arabian Peninsula, peace talks between warring Yemeni groups have stalled. The U.S. has aided Saudi Arabia's war against Houthi rebels on behalf of its Yemeni clients.
American special forces are on the ground in four civil wars now, or five if you include Afghanistan. Because these wars would be unpopular if they were put before Congress, the American people are simply not consulted. All four of the civil wars in which America has troops on the ground are carried out through an authorization of military force that was passed in 2001 to strike back at the terrorist groups involved in the September 11 attacks.
How the 2001 authorization enables the U.S. to run the logistics and refuel Saudi planes as they consistently bomb civil targets like hospitals I leave to more creative exegetes of the law. In any case, there is a danger in involving America in so many conflicts that exist beyond the remit of popular opinion. It was precisely America's poorly-understood and not-deeply supported involvement in Somalia in the 1990s that rocked Bill Clinton's first term. The public was curious to know why its military men were being lynched in the streets of a country to which it offered humanitarian help. Men die in circumstances that were not anticipated and the public asks questions: Who authorized this? Why?
And these are just the conflicts in the Middle East. The U.S. will likely witness more provocative acts as Russia continues its military buildup on the border with Ukraine. It has seen China make more aggressive moves that rankle American allies in the South China Sea.
And sometimes these problems can interlock with each other. The Syrian Civil War inspired Angela Merkel to open the doors of Europe, and a refugee wave is re-shaping European politics in a nationalist direction, and possibly led directly to Brexit. Since the largest EU nations effectively constitute the deputy partner in America's NATO alliance, any instability that gets Europe looking for major political rearrangements is serious news. Will fooling around and extending the Syrian civil war have been worth it, if a migrant crime and terror wave in Europe makes Marine Le Pen president of France? How will it look when her party, which has been bailed out by Russian moneymen, comes to destroy the European project?
President Obama was given a very difficult foreign policy situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. But his decisions in the Middle East and elsewhere have set a number of traps for the next president, while weakening our allies. And this in turn has invited other global powers to test America's historic commitments.