Translation: things that are going well result from Obama’s wisdom; things that are going bad, well, you know, stuff happens.
Of course, the Middle East is Exhibit A on the list of stuff that is out of American control. “The Middle East,” he said, “is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” No mention of Libya, where Obama and European allies decided to bomb and help bring down Moammar Gaddafi only to run off while the country descended into chaos. Israel-Palestine? One of those millennially rooted-in-conflict things. Iraq, too, except we contribute by bombing the Islamic State and simultaneously turn a blind eye to sectarian atrocities against Sunni Muslim communities, tolerated by our allied Baghdad government, that feed the Islamic State-led insurgency.
Obama had the chutzpah (a word used only in a specific part of the Middle East) to suggest American leadership means progress in Syria, “where we’re partnering with local forces and leading international efforts to help that broken society pursue a lasting peace.” Do those local forces include Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate supported by private funds that somehow slip the attention of nominal allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait? Do US partners actually include Turkey which is bombing Kurdish militias that are fighting the Islamic State? Russia? I guess not.
Obama brought up the need for the US to “remake” the post-World War II international system to deal with “economic headwinds” in China, with Russia and its activities in Ukraine and Syria, and messes as far afield as Pakistan and Central America. He somehow forgot about the military stand-off in the China Seas, where the Beijing government is gobbling up reefs to expand its control of sea lanes.
Anyway, Obama didn’t actually describe this new world system, except to say that the US would act alone sometimes and do things with other countries when possible. Is that a new system? I wonder if Franklin Roosevelt ever thought about that. Hey, didn’t the US have allies in wars in Vietnam and Iraq? Maybe having compliant allies isn’t really sine qua non of a new international order.
Obama spent the biggest single chunk his foreign policy chapter of his State of the Union speech on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates. He seemed to understand that the terror threat was much on the minds of common citizens. He downplayed ISIS’ existential danger. “We have to take them out,” he added, noting that there are plenty of other countries on board with that, though it’s not clear just what most of those 60 countries are doing. Somehow Afghanistan, home to another Islamist terrorist group, eluded mention.
The list of Obama’s self-described successes seemed to occur mainly off the battlefield: Iran (the good Iran that’s dumping its nuclear program, not the bad Iran backing the Syria regime), Cuba, the Africa of Ebola, climate change, even the yet to be ratified Tran-Pacific trade agreement.
In fact, what Obama managed to avoid was any sense that his main foreign policy goal, eight years ago, was to end US involvement in wars in long-running wars, failed. US forces are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, though in fewer numbers. Wars in the Middle East have expanded under his watch. He has preferred to fight them from the air in Iraq, Syria and Libya, while letting Saudi Arabia bomb away in Yemen, but they are wars nonetheless. Drones, anyone? No mention.
Meanwhile, assertive China and Russia show no signs of moderating shows of power beyond their borders.
In short, Obama has actually bequeathed more international problems to his successors than he inherited from the lamentable George Bush. That’s quite an accomplishment.
The Guardian sums up Obama’s record.
Slate offers sort of a defense of Obama.
Foreign Policy campaigns against foreign policy doctrines.