Dmitri Shufutinsky

The Obama legacy

On January 20, 2017, President Obama’s political nemesis since 2011–Donald Trump–will become his successor in the White House. Undoubtedly, this is humiliating for him. The first Black president of the USA is being followed by someone who was rabidly endorsed by the KKK. And yet President Obama has almost no one to blame besides himself. When confronted with evidence that Russia was hacking the Democrats to sink Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the White House (which was ultimately successful), he did nothing. This pattern of inaction is not limited to Russian hackings during an election year: in fact, inaction seems to be the modus operandi of the Obama Doctrine.

In 2009, the president did nothing to support the Green Revolution in Iran, made up by liberal Iranians and others who were opposed to their corrupt, abusive, terror-supporting government’s phony election results. Two years later, his administration destroyed the tyrannical Libyan government of Moammar Gaddafi, but left nothing but chaos (and ISIS) in its place. His reaction to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria was lackluster and dismissive: despite their acts of brutal murder against foreign journalists, ethnic & religious minorities, and innocents abroad, President Obama dismissed them as a “JV Team” that should be “degraded”, while warning Christians not to “get on their high horse” because of the Crusades from 9 centuries ago. He belatedly began sending in special forces and launching airstrikes, while continuing to promote the idea of a “unified” Iraq and Syria, despite vast evidence that these countries have very little chance of truly coming together ever again due to sectarianism.  After the first wave of 2015 terror attacks in Paris, in which the Jewish Hyper Cacher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo headquarters were attacked, Obama failed to join world leaders (including even Abu Mazen) in a peace march in solidarity with the victims. In the aftermath of smaller terrorist attacks in the USA and Europe, ultimately culminating in larger ones in Paris in fall 2015 and Belgium in early 2016, the president continued to stress how ISIS was not Islamic, and that the West should “be compassionate” and refrain from “blaming Muslims”. But how compassionate was it, Mr. President, to continue condemning the brutal war crimes in Syria while doing nothing about it?

I believe that former president Teddy Roosevelt (one of our best presidents, in my opinion) was right in his simple approach to foreign policy: walk softly, but carry a big stick. The failure of former president George W. Bush was not walking softly at all, and using his big stick everywhere he went, creating unnecessary chaos and lacking coherent strategy. President Obama’s failure, by contrast, was of walking too softly, and carrying no stick whatsoever. He has paved the way for Iran to eventually acquire a nuclear weapon (if not stopped) and keep funding terrorism, with no requirement from them to recognize Israel’s right to exist or stop their anti-American rhetoric and actions. His administration ordered Syria’s Kurds, our most effective fighting partner in that country against jihadists, to give in to Turkey’s colonial demands of control over northern Syria, lest they lose American support. In 2013, he undermined America’s credibility by allowing Assad to cross his “red line” of using chemical weapons, without a military retaliation against the Iranian-backed regime. During his address to the Islamic World in 2009, he pledged friendship to Muslims, seeking to rectify some of the perceived wrongs of the Bush Administration. But he also gave voice to radicals in the region in numerous ways, such as empowering the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2012, deposing a stable leader who had maintained peace with both the USA and Israel. Thank G-d that Mohammed Morsi was replaced by the more moderate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. President Obama and those closest to him said his foreign policy was, to put it simply, “don’t do stupid shit”. However, there’s plenty of “stupid shit” that he and his State Department have done over the past 8 years. His administration, compared to Bush’s, is merely the opposite side of the same coin, with regards to foreign policy.

The president also demoralized moderates and longtime partners and allies in the Middle East by denying Jewish aboriginal ties and rights to the Land of Israel, saying that the Jewish state was reborn only because of the West’s guilt over the Holocaust. He continued to portray settlements, not Palestinian terror or Muslim Supremacist ideology, as the main obstacle to the two-state solution. He continued standing with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his Islamist and authoritarian ideology and his continued repression of our longstanding allies, the Kurds. President Obama was also silent when American citizens were murdered by Palestinian terrorists while on vacation in Israel, such as Ezra Schwartz, a Jewish high school graduate, or Taylor Force, a veteran. Rather than demanding better from the Islamic World (in particular, from Palestinians and other Arab societies) in the way of politics and human rights, the president made endless excuses for them, putting the sole blame on “the occupation” or Western interventions (which he, by the way, has continued in both Libya and Yemen, to the dismay of the very left-wing he claims to champion). This is nothing but the soft bigotry of low expectations, which, along with anti-Semitism, is the most rampant form of racism in leftist politics today.

And yet while trying to make himself appear a pro-Muslim peacenik, he has essentially maintained the Bush-era security apparatus at home–whether it be intrusive spying on American citizens, or keeping Guantanamo Bay open despite vowing to close it. Adding on to this hypocrisy is how he denounced Bush and Hillary Clinton for their stances on the Iraq War, yet did nearly the exact same thing in Libya (with perhaps even more horrific, though less covered, consequences for regional stability). Furthermore, he has continued to maintain strong partnerships with radical Arab regimes, such as those in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. His shocking, unpredictable, naive, and awfully-timed foreign policy–which Hillary Clinton warned us about in 2007–has both alienated our allies and emboldened our enemies (both of which Obama hypocritically accuses President-elect Trump of doing). Russia felt that it could get away with military interventions in Ukrainian and Syrian affairs, and with good reason. With regard to Syria, the president sent his hapless and incoherent Secretary of State, John Kerry, into numerous failed ceasefire talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. In regards to the Ukraine, the president and EU leaders fell into Russia’s trap by imposing sanctions on Moscow and building up NATO forces in eastern Europe–giving Putin the ammunition of “Western imperialism” to rile up his population in his favor, despite their failing economy and initial frustration at election fraud in 2011. In the summer of 2015 at an anti-Iran nuclear deal rally, Donald Trump claimed that “we are led by very, very stupid people.” After the calamities of both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Bush and Obama, it’s hard to argue with that.

The Great Recession and failings of Bush in regards to how the War on Terror was handled has been portrayed in some circles as proof of an American decline. With President Obama’s sloppy and downright strange foreign policy, this view has become even more popular. For all of the horrific things that Russia has done, and continues to do, it has changed facts on the ground for the Syrian regime and has gathered prospective allies in Donald Trump and the European far-right. He has projected an image of power and strength, and demonstrated a sense of reliability to friends, partners, and allies of Russia, even though Russia has a failing economy, a low life expectancy, a serious drug and HIV problem, rampant alcoholism, a deteriorating health care system, and an abysmal human rights record. And what has the USA, under Obama and many other presidents done? Signaled that it is willing to cowardly pull inward and abandon our allies for peace at any cost–yet again, the very thing Obama claims Trump is doing. With Obama’s lack of action in Syria, it has given Hezbollah valuable battle experience that could make it harder for Israel or any other anti-Hezbollah force in the region to destroy the group. It has also strengthened Iranian imperialist aspirations in the Middle East, which further entrenches and gives voice to both hardline Sunnis and the Israeli far-right which seeks annexation—all of which Obama claims to oppose, and believes he has somehow stymied. His abandonment of traditional allies in the region–Israel, the Arabs, and the Kurds–leaves many of them looking towards potentially new allies in Asia–namely the Indians and Chinese, as well as Russia–to replace an increasingly unreliable West.

President Obama should have learned from history if he wanted Hillary Clinton, or at least someone besides The Donald, to succeed him. If you want your party to win reelection, you must demonstrate and project an aura of confidence and strength, and clearly explain to the people how their lives have been improved. This was successfully achieved in 2012, with the Obama Administration pointing out the coming end of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (though troop involvement there was ultimately increased), the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and an improving economy. The president also championed LGBT-friendly causes and successes, and the rollout of ObamaCare, as an improvement in the lives of all Americans–something that he, as the first Black president, could have been an everlasting symbol for. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was out of touch with the average American and failed to inspire. This time, it seems as if he gave up after January 20, 2013, and some Americans are left wondering, as his achievements look likely to be rolled back: what was the point? Maybe we should’ve just let McCain or Romney win, as things wouldn’t have turned out much differently than they soon will be, other than the two of them being more antagonistic to Russia than Trump is. Or maybe Hillary would’ve been a better candidate in 2008, and a better president overall?

In 2016, the Democrats didn’t seem to have a vision. If there was one, it was very general aimed at “improving minority rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights” without going into much detail on how this would occur. Indeed, many minorities, such as Blacks and Native Americans, feel that the Democrats have been using them for votes for years, and have never truly fulfilled their pledges to help improve their living standards. Jews, too, feel increasingly betrayed as the Left, which we have long identified with, engages in or dismisses anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and apologizes for terrorism. The Democrats spent most of their time attacking Donald Trump, and little time cleaning house and ending their hypocritical practices and viewpoints. While Trump savagely attacked his political opponents, including many in the media, he also laid out a (also generic) plan for the country in a more emotionally-appealing way than Democrats did. Large scores of the American people do not feel as if the president has made them safer. They feel that his antipathy and double standards towards American allies, and perceived friendliness with historic rivals, undermines our credibility and our position as the “top dog” on Earth. They see a Middle East that has only become more unstable as the Obama Administration adopts a lackadaisical approach. The term “leading from behind” that the president so often uses is an oxymoron that leads to confusion both at home and abroad about just what America’s role is. The American people on both sides also felt uncomfortable with bad free trade deals that harm the American worker while abusing the rights of foreigners and ruining the environment, along with spying programs on our civilians–both of which were maintained and championed by President Obama and his cronies. And his perceived weaknesses on immigration, a lackluster economy, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and Russia’s resurgence, as well as questionable engagements with Cuba and a messy policy on dealing with the nuclear threat originating from North Korea, all make large swathes of the American people feel threatened, sad, or angry–which ultimately led to a rejection of establishment “politics as usual” and a move towards a strongman who made big but bold promises of change–as Obama himself once did 8 years ago.

We have seen this story play out before. Jimmy Carter came into office after the American people was tired of incompetence or corruption of Republicans (the latter under Nixon, and the former under Ford). While Carter helped make peace between Egypt and Israel, culminating in Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, he is now remembered as a weakling who failed at backing the Shah of Iran (a friendly leader to our interests and, in some ways, even to Israel) against the radical Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who took our people hostage. He failed to save them later. He presided over a weak economy. Elsewhere on foreign policy, he was a harsh critic of Israel and backed a policy of arming and aiding radical Muslims to wage jihad on Russian troops in Afghanistan. Americans felt unsafe, poor, and ready for change–which they entrusted to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Reagan is glorified as the winner of the Cold War who improved America’s economy and has an optimistic vision for the country—which is how he won the 1980 election. However, his free trade, supply-side economics ultimately brought the country down, and his failures in Lebanon and Iran-Contra, along with ignoring the AIDS epidemic for what seemed like forever, proves that his “success” is also very tarnished.

History has repeated itself. Trump portrayed himself as some sort of ’10s version of Reagan, who challenged the failed predictions of the media elite and defied all expectations of an establishment government which, despite having failed in so many ways, still believed it could defeat someone with no political experience–and therefore no bad political record. While Trump is less eloquent and more negative on the state of America, he portrays himself as someone who can restore an emerging banana republic and falling empire to its former glory. On the other hand, all that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could do was argue for “a stable hand”, blame Russia and media bias, denigrate most Republican voters, and attack Donald Trump, while continuing the DNC’s awful foreign policies and failing to convince the average American voter of the success of globalization and recent economic growth. Like Jimmy Carter, Obama has denounced or betrayed true American allies like Israel and the Kurds, while cozying up to enemies and arming “unknown” and unreliable forces in Syria (or even the Iraqi Army) and bowing down or cowering before rivals. Like Carter, early successes will likely be overlooked or forgotten due to the failures late in his tenure. Like Carter, he abandoned stable and reliable (although, admittedly, unsavory) leaders in the Middle East, without understanding who would replace them or even bothering to lay out a plan for a peaceful and stable transition. The instability created in this vacuum, along with a lackluster economy, led to the “vote of no confidence” in the establishment and the Democrats that culminated in the victory of Donald Trump–leading us to an uncertain future.

The tragedy is that, perhaps in another time, President Obama’s leadership would’ve been better. Had it occurred in the 1990s, when little was going on in the way of outright war, and there was a euphoric sense of “the end of history”, he might have been a better leader, due to some of his domestic successes. It’s true that Republicans in Congress did prevent Obama from being more successful on a number of fronts–and it’s worth noting that Republican voters this year rejected the hypocritical and failing ideology of establishment Republicans. But in 2009 and 2010, President Obama had a completely Democratic Congress. Even in 2011 and 2012, Democrats still controlled the Senate. And yet there were still numerous failings and broken promises to all. So what is President Obama’s legacy going to be? No doubt, many will fondly look back on this as a progressive era, when the first Black president legalized gay marriage, killed Bin Laden (and, via drone strikes, numerous other jihadis), began to normalize relations with Cuba, made moves to stymie global warming, and did improve the lives of some with ObamaCare. Others will remember him for starting to improve the economy, however modestly, after the Great Recession. Unfortunately, this era will also be remembered for a weakness in light of Iranian, Russian, North Korean, and Chinese belligerence and aggression. It will be remembered as an age of instability in the Middle East, when Obama broke his promises of non-intervention (Libya), an independent Palestine, domestic spying, and drone strikes to his most leftist constituency while also failing to appeal to centrists and right-wingers, who believe that American credibility has been seriously undermined.

Now Obama will be remembered for largely ignoring the will of the American people, and being so egotistical (something he and others accuse Trump of being) that he could ignore it and not have his party reap the consequences. He will be remembered as the lame duck president. And much like Bush (who is viewed as such a failure that he delivered Obama to the White House for 8 years), Obama will be remembered as a pathetic failure and a disappointment that delivered Trump, the most unconventional political candidate in our history, to the White House. The “smooth transition” that was to take place has been scuppered by the administration’s petulant temper-tantrums in the form of pointless, oddly-timed sanctions on Russia and a UNSC vote (with Washington abstaining) denying Jewish ties to Jerusalem and Judea & Samaria and mostly blaming Israel’s “settlements” as the main reason for the impasse in “Middle East peace”. He has also bizarrely speculated that he could’ve defeated Trump if he ran for a third term–what’s the point of this, given that it’s not reality and never had a chance of becoming so? It makes the president look as childish as many of The Donald’s tweets. Furthermore, there’s little reason to think that Obama–who has alienated and let down so many Americans, and who campaigned in person actively for Hillary–would’ve beaten the Trump juggernaut. Knowingly or otherwise, he is only making things worse for his legacy and emboldening the most radical voices among Trump’s supporters.

Almost 8 years ago, on January 20, 2009, the candidate of Hope & Change, the ‘Yes, We Can’ man, became the most powerful person in the world, and it seemed as if a new era began. One of fairness, transparency, accountability, equality, and peace. But in 17 days, another “hope & change” candidate will replace him, getting there not necessarily by his own merit, but in part because of the failings and ego of his predecessor, who has left nearly half of the world on fire and the other half with an uncertain future.

About the Author
Dmitri Shufutinsky is a freelance reporter with the Jewish News Syndicate, and a Junior Research Fellow with ISGAP. He made aliyah to Kibbutz Erez through Garin Tzabar in 2019, and served as a Lone Soldier in the IDF. Dmitri is an ardent Zionist and a supporter of indigenous rights, autonomy, solidarity, and sovereignty. He currently lives in Hadera, and a graduate of Arcadia University's Masters program in International Peace & Conflict Resolution.
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