We all worry about our legacy. President Obama must too. But unlike most of us he has a lot of people telling the world what his will be.
The current favorite is the Iran nuclear deal. I doubt that. Does anyone even remember that it was Bill Clinton who made a nuclear deal with North Korea? It fell apart in George W’s administration. Even that is not remembered, I suppose because the list of his failures is long.
If the Iran nuclear deal falls apart soon, sure it will tarnish the Obama brand. But let’s assume the implementation of the Iranian nuclear deal goes reasonably well. If 10 or 15 years from now Iran makes a dash for a nuclear weapon, will anyone blame Barack Obama, or will they understandably blame his successor’s successor? And credit him with delaying what was inevitable.
There have been lots of “legacy” proposals these past six months. The two most prominent, quite rightly focused on domestic policy, have been
- Obamacare, which survived its test in the Supreme Court;
- gay marriage, another Supreme Court win.
They will no doubt be counted as important milestones on the way towards a more just society, but really not legacy-defining.
A far stronger candidate in my view is this:
That’s a rapid recovery from the 2008 economic implosion, followed by six years of relatively steady if modest growth, likely to be extended to eight years while much of the rest of the world continues to stagnate. Simultaneously, US government debt has leveled off:
This good economic news is important for American foreign policy. Without it, there would be little hope that Washington could muster the resources needed to engage–even to the extent it has–on major issues like Moscow’s military challenge in Ukraine and Beijing’s somewhat less military challenge in the South China Sea.
In addition, there is the good news about US energy production:
Combined with the decline in global energy prices, this dramatic shift is denying resources to some of our adversaries and providing a serious boost to the American economy.
All that good economic news–rarely credited today but likely to be all to obvious in the future–should not however obscure the very real bad news from the Middle East. Apart from the failure of the Administration’s efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, we’ve got a civil war in Syria that has killed upwards of 300,000 people and displaced close to half the country’s population, sending 4 million abroad as refugees. We’ve also got a civil war in Libya, allowed to flourish in the aftermath of a successful intervention. And another in Yemen, where Washington is half-heartedly supporting a Saudi intervention that appears to be making things worse.
Just as important: the war against Islamist extremists that began in 2001 in Afghanistan has been notably unsuccessful. Fourteen years later, a few thousand extremists in two countries have metastasized to tens of thousands in more than a dozen countries, despite hundreds of drone strikes and air attacks.Neither our military might nor our propaganda capabilities have succeeded in stemming the tide. They have arguably made things worse. The American non-governmental organizations are rightly protesting continuation of an approach that simply has not worked.
When it comes to foreign policy, these failures in the Middle East and in the fight against Islamist extremists are likely to be a bigger part of President Obama’s legacy than the nuclear deal. If he wants to worry about something, he should put these things at the top of his list. A serious effort now to enable Syrian moderates to begin governing inside Syria, coupled with a serious European effort to make sure the UN’s Libyan mediation unifies that country’s rival governments and parliaments, would do a great deal to fix the broken Middle East. These are largely diplomatic challenges, not military ones.
We would still be facing terrorist challenges elsewhere. If we want to deal with them, it is clear enough that military means will not suffice. We need a much stronger civilian mobilization, in partnership with other countries and international organizations. More on how to make that part of Barack Obama’s legacy in a later post.