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.

We did not know … that the Arab Spring would have been such a disappointment had we engaged the region quickly and forcefully … We could have had an impact on the outcome had we had a strategy other than washing our hands of the region, and had we shown willingness to exercise our leadership.

When Obama finally chose to intervene in one of the rebellions, he did so by voicing his support for the ouster of America’s long-standing Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak. The result: Mubarak was deposed, and Egypt descended into the chaos that led to the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi and then a military countercoup that ultimately resulted in the emergence of another military strongman, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi. Moreover, in dumping a long-standing regional ally, and implicitly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, Obama began to sow the seeds of doubt in the minds of other regional allies about American credibility and reliability.

Chollet frequently repeats Obama’s mantra: “don’t do stupid shit.” It is arguable, however, that Obama’s intervention in Egypt was just that. So too was the 2011 military intervention in Libya. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, or North Korea, Chollet does address at some length Obama’s controversial decision to provide American military support for the European effort to prevent Muammar el-Qaddafi from carrying out his threat to eradicate the Libyan opponents of his regime. He acknowledges that the Libya operation led to nothing less than a “tragedy.” Then again, so belatedly did Obama himself. “By the end of his presidency,” writes Chollet, “Obama summed up his Libya policy bluntly. ‘It didn’t work,’ he said, ‘Libya is a mess.’”

Even then, however, Chollet cannot bring himself to criticize Obama. “It is hard to remember,” he asserts, “that the campaign appeared to be a success when it ended and Qadhafi met his brutal demise in the fall of 2011 … After all, the immediate humanitarian crisis was averted, and for awhile [sic] Libya looked relatively stable.” “Relatively,” is, of course, a loaded word, as indeed is “for a while.” 

To begin with, it was unclear why the United States should have intervened at all. Obama stressed that he did not want to engage in any additional foreign military entanglements while American troops remained engaged in combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. As he later told Jeffrey Goldberg, “We have history in Iran, we have history in Indonesia and Central America. So we have to be mindful of our history when we start talking about intervening.” Moreover, Obama launched what was called Operation Odyssey Dawn without fully consulting Congress, in contrast to George H.W. Bush, who sought, and received, authorization for the use of military force against Iraq.

Obama assumed that Qaddafi meant to eradicate his opposition and considered the American and European response a humanitarian operation, what liberal interventionists called “responsibility to protect.” Yet it was equally possible that Qaddafi simply was engaging in hyperbole, a not uncommon practice in the Middle East. The language he used as his forces approached Benghazi, where the rebels had their stronghold—“We are coming tonight, and there will be no mercy”—may simply have been meant to cow the city into submission. Chollet acknowledges that “there’s no question the United States lacked expertise on Libya at the time, and to a certain extent, American officials were flying blind.” Yet for the better part of a decade, ever since Qaddafi had agreed to dismantle his nuclear program and had resumed relations with the United States, American businessmen had returned to Libya and Washington maintained an embassy in Tripoli and a consulate in Benghazi. In other words, Washington knew no less about Libya than it did about most other states in the region. 

Moreover, by turning on Qaddafi, Obama once again demonstrated the futility of reaching a nuclear agreement with the United States. Chollet does not mention that agreement, nor does he acknowledge that Tehran and Pyongyang both took notice of America’s about-face. The result no doubt was a far tougher negotiating stance on the part of the ayatollahs, and North Korea’s refusal to decelerate its nuclear program. And, while acknowledging that Libya is a “mess,” Chollet prefers to avoid discussing the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens while visiting Benghazi, or the brutal, internationalized civil war that still rages in that country.

Chollet does not mention “leading from behind,” the phrase that characterized the Libya operation. Nor does he note that Obama wanted the Europeans to lead because as he told Jeffrey Goldberg, “It was part of the anti-free rider campaign.” The words “free riders” do not appear in Chollet’s book. They were central to Obama’s worldview, however. As he put it to Goldberg, “Free riders aggravate me.” Indeed, in this respect, he differed sharply from Eisenhower, and for that matter the archrealist Richard Nixon. As presidential historian Stephen Sestanovich told Goldberg, unlike his two predecessors “Obama appears to have had a personal, ideological commitment to the idea that foreign policy had consumed too much of the nation’s attention and resources.” His contempt for “free riders” not only cast doubt in the minds of America’s allies as to whether they could rely on Washington’s support, but laid the groundwork for the far less eloquent Donald Trump who wielded the concept with a vengeance.

Despite the various international security crises that Obama had to address during his eight years in office, Chollet discusses only one other apart from Libya, namely, the Syrian Civil War. He justifies Obama’s controversial decision not to support the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad as he puts it: “Obama viewed Syria as an urgent priority but not a particularly important one.” Leave aside the fact that Syria, with its huge chemical weapons arsenal, was significantly more important to American security and that of its allies than the Libyan Civil War. There was also the fact that Obama’s reluctance to intervene flew in the face of his own secretary of state’s eagerness to do so. Hillary Clinton argued for early support for the rebels and subsequently pointed out—much to Obama’s annoyance—that “‘don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

The criticism that was lodged against Obama’s decision to withhold support for the Syrian rebels paled before the outcry that resulted from his failure to act on his implied threat to use military force if Assad crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against the rebels. When Assad did cross that line, Obama did nothing in response. Goldberg reports that when Obama made a last-minute decision to cancel a strike against Syrian targets, “aides in the room were shocked. Susan Rice, now Obama’s national security advisor, argued that the damage to America’s credibility would be serious and lasting.” Clinton said, “If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice.” And Leon Panetta, who served as both Obama’s cia director and his secretary of defense, and for his last year at the Pentagon was Chollet’s boss, told Goldberg “Once the commander in chief draws that red line … then I think the credibility of the commander in chief and this nation is at stake if he doesn't enforce it.”

Yet in this case as well, Chollet finds a way to explain away Obama’s initial indecision and subsequent volte-face despite his red line. In justifying why Obama sat on his hands for two years, he argues that the president “worried most about two risks related to chemical weapons: escalation and loss of control.” “Nevertheless,” he continues, “after Syria used chemical weapons in August 2013, killing nearly 1,500 civilians, Obama was prepared to strike.” Except of course, that he didn’t, and Chollet blames Congress—without naming names—for casting “dire warnings about American involvement in a morass, expressing many of the same concerns Obama shared.” That Obama did not have similar reservations when he launched the Libya operation without fully consulting Congress is a paradox that Chollet fails to address.

It was Russia that pulled Obama’s chestnuts out of the Syrian fire. Russian president Vladimir Putin, clearly the power broker in Syria, reached an arrangement with Assad that not only resulted in the Syrian’s acknowledging for the first time that he possessed chemical weapons, but in his willingness to dispense with them. Chollet argues, somewhat implausibly, that Putin and Assad reached their agreement because “Moscow and Damascus took Obama seriously.” In fact, Putin and Assad finalized their deal fully a month after Obama’s decision not to go ahead with a strike in Syrian facilities. By that time, it was clear that Obama’s threats were little more than hot air.

Less than a year after Putin had brokered the chemical weapons arrangement in Syria, Moscow masterminded a referendum that ultimately enabled it to annex what was Ukrainian territory. Obama, blind to the reality that Russia once again represented a resurgent and malign force with which America would have to contend, derisively labeled Moscow a “regional power.” He refused to permit the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine even as Russian “little green men” came to the support of Luhansk and Donetsk, the two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine. Obama came in for criticism not only from Congressional Republicans, but from leading Democrats as well. In the words of Rep. Adam Schiff, who later would be a leading figure in the two impeachments of Donald Trump, “There has been a strong bipartisan well of support for quite some time for providing lethal support.” Chollet barely mentions Ukraine, however, and says nothing at all about Crimea or about Obama’s negating arms sales to Ukraine. Ironically, it was Donald Trump who, despite behaving as Putin’s lackey, permitted those sales to go through.