Obama: The Fairy-Tale President?
Obama's made a lot of Faustian bargains over the last seven years. But given his likely successors, what we got over the last two terms may be as good as it gets.
In fairy tales, the hero makes a wish. After a few trials the wish comes true, and everyone lives happily ever after. But only in this Disney version of fairy tales is wish fulfillment so straightforward.
In Goethe’s modern fairy tale, a scholar dreams of knowledge and power. A stranger grants his wish, but the ambitious Faust must pledge his soul to the Devil to seal the deal. In the famous short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” a distraught mother rubs the animal’s amputated limb and wishes for her dead son to return. When the knock on the door comes late at night, she realizes that her dead son has indeed returned, but not necessarily to life.
The moral? Unless you’re two-dimensional and Technicolor, be careful what you wish for.
Those who aspire to occupy the Oval Office, should their wish come true, are not guaranteed a fairy-tale ending. Indeed, few exit the presidency without giving up their soul (or large parts thereof). Some are even haunted by the dead who come knocking at midnight, demanding to be heard. Presidents watch their hair turn grey and their shoulders slump from the weight of the office.
Barack Obama became president of the United States seven years ago. He made many a difficult bargain in order to fulfill his wish to become America’s first African American commander-in-chief. In the process, he’s auctioned off parts of his soul to different vested interests and, as a result, disappointed many.
Some commentators on the left have blasted his presidency because it doesn’t conform to their Disney understanding of American politics (in which the fairy leftist waves a wand and all Americans suddenly become Swedish socialists). Many commentators on the right have dismissed the Obama administration from day one because it doesn’t conform to their Reaganesque understanding of American society (in which gummint shrivels up like a raisin in the sun leaving Americans free to choose, starve, and fire their semi-automatics).
But there are also plenty of people in the middle who have grown cynical of the Obama administration, because seven years is a long time to sustain hope and pray for change. This broad slice of the electorate expected peace, and they’ve gotten a lot of war. They hoped in the wake of the financial crisis for an economy geared to the 99 percent, and they’ve seen the raucous return of the rich. They expected a transformation of the way Washington does business, and they witnessed a continuation of business as usual.
It’s best, of course, to approach American politics with diminished expectations. Such realism applies double when the president himself is a realist. The Barack Obama who took office in 2009 was no revolutionary, though many mistook the radical fact of an African American winning the presidency for a radical agenda.
Obama promised to end one war (Iraq), not all wars. He offered a modest program of economic reforms, but he was also heavily funded during his campaign by Wall Street donors. And he was a centrist Democrat taking the reins of a government increasingly hobbled by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party. Only against the backdrop of the president’s constrained ambitions and Washington’s dysfunctional politics do the first seven years of the Obama era make any sense at all.
Coming on the heels of perhaps his greatest accomplishment — a global commitment to tackle climate change — it’s time to look at what Obama has and hasn’t done as president. There’s one year left in his term. But Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are already vying to be in the on-deck circle. Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are itching to be the last-minute pinch-hitter.
There’s an excellent chance that U.S. foreign policy after January 2017 will be more militaristic, more beholden to the rich and powerful, and more embedded in the Beltway’s business as usual. And that’s if Hillary wins. There’s also a possibility, should the inevitably right-wing Republican candidate cobble together a majority of the resentful, that the United States will return to the armed exceptionalism of the Bush era.
At this critical juncture, then, we need to be clear-eyed about Obama’s accomplishments in order to brace ourselves for 2017. It’s been seven years of turbulence. Buckle up and prepare for a crash landing.
The Green Miracle
The most telling moment in the recent climate change talks came when U.S. negotiator Todd Stern walked into the assembly in Paris, with the representative of the Marshall Islands by his side, and received a standing ovation.
At a similar meeting in Bali eight years before, the U.S. team consistently played an obstructionist role and endured one round of boos after another. “If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us,” Kevin Conrad, the negotiator from Papua New Guinea, told the U.S. delegation. “Please, get out of the way.” At the very last moment, the Bush team signed a watered-down version of an accord that effectively pushed the hard choices off for the next administration.
This time around, however, the United States was willing to lead — not only at the Paris conference itself, but also in all the patient negotiations required in the lead-up to the gathering. This included a compact with China, a commitment to provide more funds to developing countries to ensure sustainable economic growth, and a push to get as many countries as possible to make pledges to reduce their carbon emissions. In the end, 186 out of 196 countries stepped up to the plate.
Yes, the resulting agreement in Paris could have required the international community to make more binding commitments, provide more funds for poorer countries, and allocate more urgent subsidies of renewables to ensure that the global temperatures won’t exceed a 1.5 degree Celsius jump (at Foreign Policy In Focus, Oscar Reyes gives seven good reasons to be skeptical of the COP21 results). But the very fact that the United States helped to negotiate a lowering of the aspirational threshold from 2 degrees to 1.5 represents a sea change in government policy. Of course, these accomplishments are the result of significant lobbying by environmentalists and scientists. But the Obama administration, compared to its predecessor, is far more open to such lobbying (perhaps because environmentalists and scientists actually serve in the administration).
More importantly, the way the United States has engaged with other countries on this issue reflects a fundamentally different attitude toward diplomacy. Perhaps we have all become accustomed in the last seven years to the United States acting like an adult in the international community. But the rhetoric of the Republican presidential aspirants is a stark reminder that the tantrum style of foreign policy — “I will rip up that Iran deal on day one of my presidency!” — is only a few swing votes of the Electoral College away from the Oval Office.
The climate deal is just one of a series of diplomatic accomplishments for the Obama administration. It not only negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, but also pushed it through a largely hostile Congress and over the objections of key Democratic senators like Charles Schumer and Ben Cardin. It ended more than a half-century of hostility with Cuba even without a regime change in Havana. And it secured a détente with Burma that helped to speed that country’s peaceful, democratic transformation.
This diplomatic hat trick is all the more remarkable when set against the diplomatic failures of the administration. An agreement with North Korea— the Leap Day deal of 2012 — fell apart almost immediately when Pyongyang announced a satellite launch. Secretary of State John Kerry racked up a lot of air miles trying to advance negotiations between Israel and Palestine, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t interested in giving any ground (quite literally in this instance). The reset with Russia went back a little too far into the past, all the way in fact to the Cold War, because of an eagerness on the part of NATO to push eastward and on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin to push westward.
In these three cases, the Obama administration could perhaps have proven more skillful, more willing to take risks, and more open to twisting the arms of allies (for instance, Israel). But the president is fundamentally a cautious leader. With Iran, Cuba, and Burma, he had the U.S. business community and U.S. public opinion pushing vigorously from behind, and the Republican Party opposition simply couldn’t push hard enough in the opposite direction. Obama had no such tailwinds with North Korea, Palestine, and Russia, plus he encountered some significant headwinds from the headstrong trio of Kim Jong Eun, Netanyahu, and Putin.
For those of us pushing for additional diplomatic breakthroughs, the lesson is to enlist the support of the business community (often a bitter pill to swallow) and transform, however slowly, U.S. public opinion. Civil society has to do the heavy lifting, which is as it should be. Leadership in the absence of some degree of popular support is autocracy, and the results aren’t likely to be sustainable either.
The National Security President
If Obama had focused for the last seven years exclusively on diplomacy, he might have lived up to the Nobel Peace Prize that he received, in a burst of premature extrapolation, only a few months after his inauguration.
But as the president took pains to point out in his Nobel acceptance speech, he’s no pacifist. He opposes many wars because he recognizes the diminishing utility of military force. But where he believes that force can yield results, he will let fly drones, call down aerial bombardment, and even dispatch U.S. troops. It’s not so much a moral decision — his nod to “just war” doctrine notwithstanding — as a tactical one.
Moreover, Obama has presided over a strengthening of the surveillance state and an almost maniacal hounding of national security whistleblowers. The president has never pretended to be a libertarian, though he voiced some cautions about the Patriot Act when he was senator and promised to close the Guantanamo detention facility as his first act in the Oval Office. As president, Obama has been rather consistent in his support of an activist government. It just so happens that he believes that government should provide both universal health care and universal surveillance.
The war in Syria has flummoxed the Obama administration (as it has so many other countries). The president has been careful to resist pressure — from Democrats and Republicans alike — to introduce U.S. ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State (or against “radical Islam,” Bashar al-Assad, Russian forces in Ukraine, the Houthis in Yemen, or any of the other threats du jour).
At the same time, Obama has showed no compunction whatsoever in funding “moderate” militias, sending in military “advisors,” and partnering with countries like Turkey that have their own dubious agendas. It’s a middle path tailor-made to piss off just about everybody — those who want to crush America’s enemies by all means necessary, as well as those (like me) who believe that even these more judicious (and often extrajudicial) flexings of American muscle will produce more virulent strains of extremism.
Even The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, who has generally made fun of warmongers, took the president to task for his uninspiring efforts at counterterrorism. “President Oh-bummer,” he labeled Obama. Having exhausted his rhetorical powers, the president has perhaps tired of trying to persuade America of his middle course (though he continues to press his case that his strategy is succeeding against the Islamic State).
Whether Obama’s heart is in this exercise of American power, he’s certainly made such discriminate deterrence a hallmark of his administration. To secure his diplomatic achievements, perhaps the president believes that he has to demonstrate his willingness to punch, and punch hard. It’s a Faustian bargain, and one at the heart of the presidential enterprise in America. Every president in the modern era has expanded American power — even Jimmy Carter in the last two years of his term — while negotiating peace deals in selected locations.
It’s the price of empire. The leaders of Costa Rica and Norway don’t face such conflicts.
Beyond the Horizon
When it comes to foreign policy, the future looks like more of the same — if we’re lucky.
Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, is no stranger to diplomacy. But she’s also demonstrated time and again that she must overcompensate — as a Democrat, as a woman, as a former 1960s activist — to “act tough” in order to command respect in a violent, patriarchal world. She’s also proven even more committed to kowtowing to the Netanyahu strain of Israeli politics, which will make any movement forward on a host of Middle East issues considerably more difficult.
Bernie Sanders has a better position on some foreign policy questions, but I doubt that middle America, however appalled it might be at economic inequality, is ready to elect an avowed socialist (I would love to be proven wrong in this regard, though).
In his last year, then, Obama will be scrambling to institutionalize the more pacific parts of his legacy, as quietly as possible. That will mean fulfilling the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, clearing obstacles from the path of engagement with Cuba, implementing his Clean Power Plan, continuing to repair America’s international reputation (for instance, by restoring U.S. funding for UNESCO), and preserving State Department funding from congressional attacks.
The other part of his legacy — drone strikes and aerial bombing, broad-spectrum surveillance, Special Forces operations around the globe — won’t need protecting from a successor.
I was a realist eight years ago when I wrote that Obama’s middle-of the-road policies would produce a “Goldilocks apocalypse.” American foreign policy of the last seven years was flawed in so many ways, and we’re still on the road to this catastrophe of the middle way. Obama is no Disney hero, and there’s no unambiguously happy ending.
But as I survey the post-2016 alternatives, I’m increasingly concerned that, for the immediate future at least, what we got over the last two terms is as good as it gets.