How Great Was Barack Obama?

How Great Was Barack Obama?

Derek Chollet’s The Middle Way: How Three Presidents Shaped America’s Role in the World offers spirited but questionable assessments, particularly of the Barack Obama presidency.

Many people question the future of America in the world … especially ... in the wake of the cataclysm generated by the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 … and when American democracy itself seems imperiled. … In such troubling times, the lessons of Eisenhower, Bush and Obama can be a guide … they exemplify an underappreciated tradition of political leadership and distinct vision for America’s global role.

Chollet’s effort to bracket Obama with Eisenhower and Bush, however, is often forced. For example, he asserts that “from the moment of their election Eisenhower, Bush and Obama thought deeply about their approaches to national security.” So for that matter did every president from Franklin D. Roosevelt onwards. Similarly, he argues that Eisenhower, Bush, and Obama “all faced a type of antagonist that shared a common ancestry—from Taft and McCarthy, to Buchanan and Perot, to Trump.” In fact, it was George W. Bush who, like his father, had to face a challenge from the isolationist Buchanan in the Republican primaries. By contrast, the only challenge Obama faced was from Hillary Clinton, a true internationalist. Trump may have fostered anti-Obama conspiracy theories, but he hardly posed a serious threat to either of Obama’s presidential campaigns, or, for that matter, to his actions while in office.

CHOLLET QUOTES with approval a 2008 campaign speech in which “Obama said he admired how the forty-first president recognized ‘that it is always in our interests to engage, to listen, [and] to build alliances.’” Bush did exactly that; Obama, not so much. Indeed, the only new alliance Obama appears to have instigated was the growth in de facto cooperation between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. He did so inadvertently, however. Both the Arabs and Israelis resented the Americans’ unwillingness to do anything other than tell them Washington’s intentions regarding a nuclear deal with Iran. There was no real consultation; unlike Bush, Obama did not “listen.” Ultimately, suspicion of American motives led to the Abraham Accords; an agreement such as that one was never on Obama’s radar, however.

Chollet argues that Obama, like Eisenhower and Bush, “embraced bold ambitions and saw their country as exceptional but remained focused on not overextending it.” That certainly is an apt summary of Eisenhower and Bush’s worldview. It contrasts starkly with the several apologies that Obama uttered on his early overseas trips in the spring of 2009. The trips may not have been an “apology tour” as Mitt Romney later characterized it, but Obama’s statements certainly came as a surprise to many Americans. During his first overseas trip as president, Obama remarked at a Town Hall in Strasbourg, France, on April 3, 2009, that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.” He then added in an obvious slight to his predecessor, “We just emerged from an era marked by irresponsibility.” Speaking before the Turkish parliament a few days later, he asserted that “the United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history ... Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans.” 

Chollet points out that it was Obama’s “profound … conviction that the United States needed to confront its flaws directly. Doing so, Obama believed, was not an admission of weakness, it was the key to renewal.” Nevertheless, no president had previously made such pronouncements before an overseas audience. Indeed, Obama made it very clear that he thought the United States definitely was not exceptional when he mused to Edward Luce of the Financial Times, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Yet if all countries are exceptional, then none are. And while Obama subsequently went to great lengths to clarify, restate, and essentially repudiate what he had enunciated early in his presidency, given that his statement came at roughly the same time as his speeches in Strasburg and Ankara, the damage was done. Neither Eisenhower nor Bush ever came close to making similar statements even though they clearly had both the motive and opportunity to do so. Eisenhower had to send troops to Little Rock in 1957 to uphold the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education by forcing the all-White Central High School to admit Black students. Bush had to confront the Watts riots in late April and early May 1992, in the middle of his presidential campaign. Yet neither saw any reason to wash America’s dirty linen before the international public.

Chollet describes Obama as a “small-c-conservative, or what is sometimes described as a ‘dispositional conservative’: ambitious in outlook while cautious in action.” That is how Obama saw himself. As he told Jeffrey Goldberg, in an interview during his final year in office, “I suppose you could call me a realist in believing that we can’t at any given moment, relieve all the world’s misery.” Reflecting Obama’s sentiments, Chollet points to “numerous analysts” who noted the similarities between Obama’s foreign policy and those of Ike and Bush, especially “their common instinct for strategic restraint and their intuitive ‘realist’ approach.” Yet on closer examination, virtually all those “numerous analysts” were long-time supporters of Democratic administrations and Obama admirers. As Colin Dueck notes in Age of Iron, his study of conservative nationalism, “Obama’s foreign policy record was viewed favorably by Democrats, much less so by Republicans or independents.”

As Chollet notes several times in his volume, the president’s desire to employ all tools of American power, and not just those of the military, would appear to mesh well with the realists’ reluctance to have America engage in endless foreign adventures to promote its values. But Obama’s record on the use of force was hardly consistent. Obama justified his several increases in American force levels in Afghanistan from about 38,000 when he first took office to just under 100,000 two years later in order to bring the war to an end. As he put it in his February 2013 State of the Union Address, “By the end of next year our war in Afghanistan will be over.” That was eight years ago; when he left office there were still more than 8,500 troops in that country, with thousands more contractors supporting them. Chollet glosses over the magnitude of those force increases, and indeed, barely refers to Afghanistan throughout the entire volume.

Just as Chollet omits Obama’s decisions regarding force levels in Afghanistan, he likewise avoids mentioning Obama’s failed North Korea policy. Obama preached what he termed “strategic patience” vis-à-vis Pyongyang, somehow hoping that the hermit state would divest itself of its nuclear program. That of course did not happen. Pyongyang continued to develop nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them and continues to threaten both America’s ally Japan and American territory as well. 

Chollet mentions China only in the context of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. Perhaps that is so because Obama’s record on China is at best mixed. He certainly encountered little success in dealing with China’s autocratic Xi Jinping. His 2015 agreement with Xi that neither country would “conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property … with the intent of providing competitive advantages to companies or commercial sectors” was virtually a dead letter from the moment it was signed. As Jack Goldsmith and Robert D. Williams wrote three years later, “viewed narrowly, on the basis of the public record in light of its publicly stated aims, the indictment strategy appears to be a magnificent failure.” Since then, matters have hardly changed at all.

CHOLLET LIKEWISE avoids discussing Obama’s controversial decision to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2010. In acting on his promise, Obama enabled Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to empower himself and his Shi’a allies at the expense of the country’s minority Sunnis. He thereby not only upset the delicate political balance that had held the country together but stoked bitter Sunni resentment that led to the rise of ISIS. Obama initially called ISIS the “junior varsity,” revealing how he had completely misjudged the attraction that the terrorist group had for Sunnis. Obama then found himself forced to send troops back to Iraq as ISIS conquered large swaths of both that country and Syria. By 2016 there were nearly 7,000 troops in Iraq. American forces continue to operate in Iraq as of the time of writing five years later, albeit at considerably smaller numbers.

Chollet only very briefly mentions the Arab Spring that began with the self-immolation of a fruit vendor in a small Tunisian town but does so only in passing. Regarding the series of rebellions that led to the ouster of the leaders of Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt, Chollet merely notes that “the unexpected events of the Middle East whipsawed his administration … Obama found it hard to handle the velocity of events, especially when weighed against other crushing demands at home and abroad.” 

Few presidents have avoided coping with “crushing demands at home and abroad;” dealing with multiple crises is part of the presidential job description. As Vali Nasr (who served in the Obama administration during the Arab Spring) has observed, Obama had a real opportunity to exert a salubrious influence on the uprisings. Nasr writes: