Why I Won’t Miss Obama
Noah Millman explains why he’ll miss Obama:
Like President Eisenhower, Obama will likely leave office on a note of caution to future administrations – but one that implicitly admits his failure to address a central problem in making foreign policy that he only belatedly understood. Like President Eisenhower, that hard-won wisdom is all but certain to be ignored by his successor, who will likely be either a full-throated liberal interventionist or an erratic, impulsive nationalist.
I am going to miss him very much, no matter who follows.
I know what Millman means, but as much as I dread what comes next I can’t say that I’ll miss Obama once he’s out of office. The president has had a few notable successes that I also happen to agree with, and I have given him credit over the years for his support for New START, the nuclear deal with Iran, and normalization with Cuba. On the whole, I think I have been reasonably fair in my commentary on Obama’s policies, and whether I have agreed with them or not I have tried to judge those policies based on what Obama has actually done rather than on some fantasy version of his record. Apart from these successes in arms control and diplomatic engagement, however, there is not a lot to praise. Obama has made several significant bad decisions that need to be kept in mind when assessing his foreign policy record, and they loom especially large in my mind because they are so completely at odds with the story the president wants to tell about his foreign policy views.
While Obama’s foreign policy has been compared to Eisenhower’s by more than a few people, Obama has failed to do the one thing that clearly distinguishes Eisenhower from his predecessor and several of his successors: concluding the existing war(s) and avoiding new ones. This has supposedly been Obama’s preoccupation throughout his presidency, and he has often boasted about ending America’s foreign wars, but it hasn’t happened. He has not only failed to conclude the U.S. role in the war in Afghanistan, but has started at least two new military interventions and routinized the waging of perpetual, unauthorized war in many countries during both of his terms.
To add insult to injury, the president often talks about his aversion to perpetual war at the same time that he involves the U.S. in new and occasionally open-ended conflicts. His administration has twisted the meaning of existing authorizations of force to justify this illegal warfare, and his officials have even denied that the U.S. was engaged in hostilities in Libya when our planes were bombing that country’s government. The U.S. is now once again bombing targets in Libya with no debate or authorization in response to the problems that the previous unauthorized Libyan intervention helped to create. Congress has scarcely ever been less involved in the decisions about where and when the U.S. goes to war overseas. That is the gift that Obama gives to his successors, none of whom is likely to be any more scrupulous about Congressional war powers than Obama has been.
Obama has tossed aside the last few restrictions that theoretically limited presidential war-making, and this has been greeted with a collective shrug by most members of both parties. Congressional abdication enables Obama to do this, but he’s still the one doing it. The longer-term significance of the Syria debate in 2013 has been that Obama learned not to seek Congress’ approval for military action. For that reason, he launched the intervention in Iraq and Syria in 2014 without bothering with a debate or vote in Congress. Future presidents will almost certainly draw the same lesson that they should just start wars without seeking approval on the assumption that Congress will never have the courage or wisdom to halt them once they have already begun.
The Atlanticarticle on his foreign policy refers several times to Obama’s disdain for the foreign policy establishment, which Millman describes as rivaling even “that of [TAC].” That may be, but it’s also hard to miss that more often than not Obama has eventually yielded to what that establishment wanted him to do. He may resist for quite a while, but it is remarkable how many times he and his officials have derided a policy option as useless or counterproductive only to adopt some version of it to placate his hawkish critics later. Obama did this fairly quickly over Libya, where he went from being skeptical about intervention to ordering an attack in just a few days, and more slowly on Syria when it took him a year to endorse the bad idea of arming the Syrian opposition, but in the end he usually buys into what the “do something” chorus demands to one degree or another. If Obama has been “battling the instincts of that apparatus” throughout his presidency, as Millman says, he has also surrendered to or affirmed those instincts more than he’s resisted and rejected them.
Obama congratulated himself in his interviews with Goldberg for refusing to follow the conventional “playbook” in 2013, but then in 2014 following the “playbook” is exactly what he did when he ordered the intervention in Iraq that has now spread to two more countries. Obama and his officials likewise made the case against intervening in Iraq in 2014 only months before turning around and arguing the opposite. One moment, the president said that the U.S. wasn’t going to serve as the Iraqi air force, and the next that is just what the U.S. was doing.
Because he correctly opposed the Iraq war, Obama is never really held accountable for the wars that he has initiated as president, and much of the criticism of his wars tends to come from hawks that fault him for not doing enough. Because Obama is relatively less aggressive and reckless than his hawkish opponents (a very low bar to clear), he is frequently given a pass on these issues, and we are treated to misleading stories about his supposed “realism” and “restraint.” Insofar as he has been a president who normalized and routinized open-ended and unnecessary foreign wars, he has shown that neither of those terms should be used to describe his foreign policy. Even though I know all too well that the president that follows him will be even worse, the next president will have a freer hand to conduct a more aggressive and dangerous foreign policy in part because of illegal wars Obama has waged during his time in office. That’s why I won’t miss Obama, and that’s why I think most people interested in realism and restraint won’t really miss him when he’s gone.