President Barack Obama’s approval rating in 2015, his seventh year in office, hovered around 46.2%. This was a significant improvement over his 42.6% average in 2014, the lowest of his presidency to date. Better economic news, particularly the low gas prices earlier in the year, allegedly aided his seventh-year ratings. American economic confidence in 2015 was also higher than at any other time during the Obama administration. And though the Paris and San Bernardino attacks brought a renewed focus on terrorism, the US encountered less tension on the international stage than during the previous year.
Overall, Obama can boast a record of accomplishments, despite their lacklustre nature. Future historians are likely to rate his presidency highly and will probably note that his administration was blissfully scandal-free, and that he himself did not make hasty decisions that back-fired. He will also get credit for his controversial health care reform, and for rescuing the country from the brink of another Great Depression. Considering how bleak things looked when he took office in 2009, these are no mean feats, especially given the fierce Republican opposition that repeatedly threatened to shut down the entire federal government.
His foreign affairs record is rather more mixed. He can claim some clear wins: the US’ image in most of the world is more positive than when he took office; relations with China have been mostly cordial; and the nuclear deal with Iran is so far a qualified success. Obama can also be given the credit for ending America’s long and counterproductive effort to ostracize Cuba.
As for the war on terror, US forces reportedly decimated al-Qaeda and killed Osama bin Laden. Obama completed the withdrawal from Iraq as agreed upon by the Iraqi cabinet and George Bush’s government. Yet perhaps more important than what Obama has done is what he has chosen not to do. He has refused to undertake a war against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad even after he crossed Obama’s so-called red lines and used chemical weapons on his own people. Obama also chose not to send large numbers of ground forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), as he preferred a military solution with lower costs and risks to American lives, namely, air strikes.
In a March 2016 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Obama stated that he “believes that Churchillian rhetoric and, more to the point, Churchillian habits of thought, helped bring his predecessor, George W. Bush, to ruinous war in Iraq”. Goldberg added: ‘Obama was particularly mindful of promising victory in conflicts he believed to be unwinnable.’ He decided to hold back on his ‘red line’ threat against the Syrian regime over the use of chemical weapons in 2013, arguing that ‘dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force.’
Obama’s Foreign Policy Under Fire
Despite all this, the president’s foreign policy has been the subject of harsh criticism domestically, including from Democrats, and the reason given for the worsening relations with strong US allies.
According to observers, Obama’s foreign policy record contains a sizeable number of failures, beginning with Afghanistan, over which Obama agonized during his first year in office before ultimately sending nearly 60,000 additional troops to the country. He promised this temporary “surge” would turn the tide against the Taliban and enable the US to leave Afghanistan with honour. In 2016, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since 2001, and the US is still fighting on that front with no end in sight.
At the same time, the consequences of the perceived US inaction, or inadequate action, in the Middle East have been as bad as the consequences of its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11. Many veterans of Obama’s administration argue that his refusal to support the armed opposition in Syria gave ISIS the opportunity to establish itself before the White House noticed it in 2014. “Obama feared a slippery slope in going up against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but the war against [Islamic State] is the slipperiest slope of them all,” wrote former State Department official Tamara Wittes.
After ISIS fighters swept across northern Iraq in 2014 and threatened to murder thousands of Yezidis who had taken refuge on a mountain, Obama launched air strikes against the group and sent a small contingent of US military advisors to shore up the Iraqi forces. However, progress has been slow and commanders of the US-led coalition against ISIS have said they estimate that defeat will take roughly five years. Now that the group has spread to other countries beyond Syria and Iraq and expanded its war into Europe with devastating effect, a five-year timeline seems less realistic.
US Inaction in the Region Aggravates Tensions With Allies
Obama’s strategy of avoiding direct military engagement in conflicts in the Middle East was a departure from his predecessor’s policy, whose invasion of Iraq in 2003 many consider as having directly led to the birth of ISIS. Instead, the president has encouraged his allies in the Middle East to take the lead in “fighting their own battles” against terrorists in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere instead of “spoon-feeding them” with the military assistance to which they had grown accustomed. He has also urged his allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, to resolve tensions with their neighbours without the need for direct US military intervention.
Referring to Saudi-Iranian rivalry, Obama specifically urged Saudi Arabia “to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace”. He added that backing US allies against Iran “would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores, and that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East”.
Obama’s critics also consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict another failure of US foreign policy. When he was inaugurated in January 2009, Obama considered it one of his top priorities to restore the damage done to the status of the US in the Middle East during the Bush presidency. Accordingly, he appointed George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East in order to put pressure on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. However, no real progress has been made. For over seven years, Israeli settlements have continued to expand; Gaza has been pummelled and blockaded continuously; so-called moderate Palestinians have been discredited; Hamas has grown stronger; and the two-state solution that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama all favoured is now dead (if not quite buried).