Obama’s foreign policy legacy in three quotes
2 Feb 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user thekurupi.

After the Bush administration, many believed that President Obama would bring stability to the global order with a fusion of eloquent rhetoric, a preference for multilateralism and a cautious approach to exercising the politico-military capabilities of the world’s sole superpower. For little more than that promise, it seems, Obama would be awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Fast-forward to the end of the Obama era and the global security environment is more volatile than it has been in decades: Russian influence is surging in the Middle East and Europe, wars ravage civilian populations in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, waves of migrants are straining EU unity, while the jihadist threat has metastasised. It’s a legacy, fairly or otherwise, that may come to be defined by three quotes.

The red line: The war in Syria represents one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in history; a holocaust that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. In response to concerns that the Assad regime may be using chemical weapons, Obama said the following on 20 August 2012:

‘We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized…. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there will be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly.’

In subsequent defences of that statement, Obama would highlight that the international community had in fact drawn that red line by ratifying the chemical weapons convention. And so that quote has come to symbolise the West’s failure to respond decisively to Assad’s crimes. History has demonstrated that rhetoric without action affords adversaries valuable opportunities to exacerbate one’s perceived ‘say-do’ gap while minimising their own. It’s a dynamic that has occurred regularly in Syria to the advantage of actors like Russia, Iran and the Assad regime.

The disparity between an actor’s words and actions also provides fertile grounds for disillusionment, distrust and anger to foment among potential allies. Nowhere was the ‘say-do gap’ felt more profoundly than by Syrians themselves. Syrian rebel forces planned and prepared for more active western involvement after Obama’s red-line statement. When support didn’t follow, many felt deeply betrayed, not just by the United States or the West but the world more broadly. As one interviewee stated to me in 2015: ‘Obama can cover the whole world in red lines. Who cares? We are dying here. And Ban Ki-moon? He is “worried” all the time. Ban Ki-Moon is worried, Obama is drawing red lines, everybody is talking and nobody is doing anything.’ It’s perhaps unsurprising that when I asked about how jihadist groups were perceived by the population I was told: ‘When America blacklists, the Syrian people [are starting to] whitelist.’

The Russian threat: The second quote comes from the third Presidential debate between President Obama and then-Governor Mitt Romney on 22 October 2012. In response to Romney describing Russia as ‘our number 1 geopolitical foe’, Obama stated, in what appeared to be a pre-prepared “zinger”: ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.’

It’s a statement that reflects a perception of the Russian threat as overblown, a sentiment that has been expressed on other occasions. For instance, Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, which has since proven to be decisive in shifting momentum back to the Assad regime, was largely dismissed by Obama in December 2015 as a strategic misstep by Putin. A year later Obama described Russia as ‘a smaller country… a weaker country’ that ‘can’t change us or significantly weaken us’ in response to reports of election-related hacking. While Obama’s descriptions of Russia are accurate, they perhaps reflect a misreading of the nature of the Russian threat.

The JV team: It’s difficult to interpret Obama’s description of ISIS as a ‘JV team’ as anything but a misunderstanding of the threat it poses. In response to a question about ISIS’s resurgence in Iraq, Obama stated on 7 January 2014: ‘…I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team put on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.’ Less than six months later, ISIS controlled swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq, had announced the establishment of its Caliphate and, by the end of 2014, had established transnational wilayats across the Middle East, Africa and the Subcontinent. The perceived complacency of the West, reflected in a delayed response to the ISIS threat, is often the centrepiece of conspiracy theories describing Western complicity in the movement’s meteoric rise. An example of rhetoric’s potential for unintended ‘blowback’ effects.

These three examples provide an important lesson: words matter and the ‘say-do’ gap matters even more. When words don’t meet actions (and vice versa), it doesn’t take long for that political actor’s credibility and even legitimacy to be shaken. ‘Say-do’ gaps create opportunities for other actors in the global system—whether they be states, institutions or non-state actors—to use their own words and deeds to fill the void. Friends are forced to scramble for clarity and assurance while adversaries may manipulate the ensuing uncertainty in ways that are often unpredictable. Rhetoric itself is an important component of a nation’s image and narrative to the world. Intentionally or unintentionally, rhetoric shapes the perceptions and expectations of friends, foes and neutrals with implications for the real world that can be instantaneous and deeply felt. When that actor’s a superpower, the consequences are exponentially magnified. Of course, the dynamics described here are central to the nature of politics and war. It’s now President Trump’s turn to grapple with them.