What do you think of Obama's presidency?

Obama's foreign policy

His foreign policy: a complete disappointment

Measured by what? If you look at the foreign policy expectations that various groups had of the new president when Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the result is an impressive list: End Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Close Guantánamo; establish a new relationship with the Islamic world; end the rift with Europe; seek a balance with Russia; ushering in a new era of disarmament and starting with the reduction of nuclear weapons; pacify the Middle East conflict; settle the nuclear dispute with Iran; relax the relationship with China; save the world from greenhouse gases. The list is far from complete. And all this in addition to the domestic and economic Herculean task of leading the USA out of the deep economic and financial crisis.

Seen in the light of day, election campaign slogans such as “Yes We Can”, “Hope” and “Change” were not aimed at foreign but at domestic politics. Inevitably, however, the hype aroused exaggerated hopes for a change of course in world politics - hopes that a flesh and blood president cannot realistically fulfill. Expectation management, the moderation of expectations, became the greatest challenge in the early months of the Obama presidency. But in October 2009 the Nobel Peace Prize also followed - as an additional burden for a president whose main task in view of the financial and economic crisis had become to stabilize the national and global economy. It seems a bit cheap when, of all people, those who fed the exaggerated expectations at the time are now complaining that Obama did not meet them all.

The president has not kept a single one of his foreign policy promises

That is clearly wrong. Obama completed the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and initiated the one from Afghanistan. The obstacles and contradictions that emerged are less due to Obama's lack of will than to the personality deficits of his partners in the war zones and the confused power structures there.

As Obama announced in the election campaign, he signed a far-reaching disarmament treaty with Russia in the spring of 2010. A third of the strategic nuclear missiles will be scrapped. As promised, he also initiated the closure of the terrorist suspect camp in Guantánamo. This plan failed - not because of Obama, but because of the cowardice of many MPs and senators in his Democratic Party who refused to approve the necessary measures.

The President underlined the offer of a new way of dealing with the Islamic world in his speech in Cairo in the summer of 2009. In dealing with Iran, Obama had promised to rely on diplomacy. He also kept this promise. Whether Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo, Russia, the Arab world or Iran: One can be dissatisfied with the state of affairs. But anyone who wants to blame him primarily on Obama must explain what the alternatives would have been and why they would have led to better results. A US president is not an almighty man who can get his way everywhere.

His foreign policy: George W. Bush with drones

That's true to a certain extent. In his first two years in office alone, Obama used more drones to kill suspected terrorist leaders than Bush did in two terms. In general, Obama has not strayed as far from Bush in America's war on terror as announced in the election campaign. He was never a pacifist. Those who followed this error were soon taught worse. Surprisingly quickly, Obama succumbed to the temptation to use drones to wage a war that is less dangerous for America's soldiers and at the same time minimizes the risk of "collateral damage" among the civilian population. In principle, both hopes are not unfounded. But the overall balance depends on the number of drone operations and the actual effort to avoid civilian casualties.

When it comes to dealing with Russia, there is also much to be said for the thesis that Obama reacts harder than Bush. During the war in Georgia in 2008, Vladimir Putin responded to an attempt by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to regain control of breakaway territories in Ossetia with an invasion. What did Bush do about it? Nothing. Obama's sanctions in the Ukraine war in 2014 are fewer than some Republicans are demanding. But more than Bush did for Georgia in 2008.

There are other examples where Obama's actions are clearly different from Bush's, for example in dealing with Israel's leadership. Obama does not shy away from the conflict with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He has repeatedly made his anger over his settlement policy and refusal to compromise clear to the limit of the diplomatic scandal - and paid a domestic political price for it, since the majority of Americans agree with Israel when in doubt.

The biggest difference between the two presidents comes from the priorities they were able to set given the economic fundamentals. Bush came in at a time of supposed prosperity and was planning an active foreign policy long before 9/11. Obama took over the presidency when America was already in military "overstretch" and the consequences of the financial crisis made the discrepancy between willingness and ability unmistakable. He had to redirect the resources to “nation building at home”.

America finally stops playing the world policeman under Obama

The US has never done that before, even if it is a common reading. The US claims to want to protect the global legal order. However, they only ever actually intervened in selected individual cases - namely when the alleged expense and income were in a reasonable relationship from their point of view.

Obama judges these possibilities more cautiously than Bush, especially out of concern about another "overstretch". In general, he would like to reduce America's military engagement and give his country the opportunity to recover economically. That is why he hesitated for a long time to intervene in Syria - some say: until the best moment had passed. In Libya, on the other hand, he supported France and Great Britain in their desire to intervene, albeit according to the cautious motto "Leading from behind", which is unfamiliar to American ears. In the summer of 2014 he was ready for limited military intervention in Iraq to prevent IS from threatening the entire country - even though the US had only withdrawn from the country beforehand and any new intervention could look like a change of course.

The special mission to capture Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 also speaks against the thesis that Obama's America has completely given up thinking about intervention. And the president has always emphasized to Iran that he would militarily stop the development of an atomic bomb if he did not achieve this goal with diplomatic means. In Asia, worried about China's rise, many states are demanding the military presence of the USA, which inevitably includes the willingness to use it to protect the international order there. Obama does not reject such expectations. He accommodates them in a moderate way.

Obama has no interest in Europe

Yes, he did. In the early years of his presidency, Europe was Obama's most frequent travel destination. The President saw the Europeans as the only reliable allies, especially since the USA is not linked to any other continent by such a dense network of shared values, shared history and shared institutions. That was not inevitable, because Obama is the first US president to have more biographical links with the Pacific (and Africa) than with Europe.

But meanwhile he is just as disappointed in Europe's inability to act effectively internationally, just as Europe is disappointed in him. The pragmatist he is, Obama does not see the meetings with the Europeans as an end in themselves based on the premise “It's good that we saw each other again”. When there was an EU-US summit in Europe in 2010 and the EU leaders had a prestigious duel with Spain, which was currently holding the Council Presidency, whether the meeting should take place in Brussels or Madrid, Obama canceled.

Now, in the Ukraine crisis, Obama seeks an exchange of ideas with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She is important to him because she can apparently assess Putin better than others and because she still has working channels to talk to Moscow. Obama could withdraw from the fact that the war in Ukraine was a European problem. And yet he seeks a common reaction from America and Europe. This time the US is not leading alone, as it did in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s, when Europe was hopelessly divided. This time America leads together with Germany, the new leading power in Europe. When military skills are required, Obama will stick to France and Great Britain rather than Germany - and when it comes to cracking down on terrorist organizations in Africa, if in doubt, Paris.

The president did nothing to defuse the NSA scandal

Nothing? Obviously, Obama realized far too late how great the outrage is about the NSA practices in Europe and especially in Germany. One cannot even be sure that he has fully grasped the scope and impact on the image of the United States in Europe to this day. In the end, however, the President reacted, even several times. He has given speeches on the trade-off between protecting privacy and wanting security from terrorism. He complained about the abuses of the services and convened a commission of experts, which was given the task of examining the allegations and making suggestions for narrowing down the services. He has adopted a large part of the recommendations, including the establishment of a "citizens' advocate" to defend the rights of individuals in judicial decisions relating to the surveillance of individuals. And he has given non-Americans legally binding assurances against spying.

With all this, Obama has drawn criticism from almost all sides, because it is in the nature of things that his measures did not meet the expectations of most Europeans and at the same time went too far for many Americans. The US is still in a kind of “Post 9/11 shock”.
The finding also includes an astonishing hypocrisy on both sides of the Atlantic. The US likes to excuse itself with the fact that everyone is spying, to a similar extent as it is - which is not true. They do not want to admit that their security apparatus including the secret services overreacted after 9/11 and that the planned "checks and balances" by parliamentary committees and courts do not function reliably in this climate of fear of terrorism.

In Germany, on the other hand, many argue from a pulpit of higher morality, as if one could guarantee security from terror in this country without American methods - although the German security experts almost unanimously affirm that it was to a considerable extent due to indications from the US services, that attacks in Germany were foiled. None of the German parties, whether in the government or in the opposition, has so far fully explained to the public which types of secret service work they approve and where, in their view, the exact dividing line between unacceptable practices runs.

Obama is a weakling foreign policy

Don't be too hasty. While there are many who reject Obama's policies, the reasons for which they do so are in part conflicting with one another. From the point of view of most Americans, the president is too tame towards Russia; for many Europeans his sanctions against Putin go too far. The Israelis accuse him of breaking traditional solidarity with the Jewish state and of showing too much understanding for the Palestinians; Arab allies, on the other hand, want to be more tough on Hamas and other extremists.

The USA does not mediate in the Gaza war because it sees Hamas as a terrorist organization and has no official direct contact with it; In the talks with the moderate Fatah and the Palestinian President Abbas, however, the USA remains the central point of contact. Obama's behavior towards China seems unnecessarily confrontational to observers from distant continents; the neighbors in the region, on the other hand, are demanding a more determined stance on the part of the USA towards Beijing.

What these views have in common is the horror of the world situation and the frustration that not even the superpower USA can prevent the worst excesses. However, they do not result in a consensus on what the US president could and should do to bring about an improvement. Which leads to the question of whether the widespread image of an alleged weakness in action in the USA is primarily due to Obama's personal deficits or has other causes.

Perhaps, 25 years after the collapse of the bipolar order, world politics has become so confusing and expectations of the politics of the superpower USA are so diverse that even a messiah cannot fulfill them. In addition, when in doubt, it is more important for Obama to avoid momentous decisions like George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan or Iraq than to use America's considerable potential to exert more influence on the course of events.

This consideration makes the USA look weaker than would be desirable from a western and also a German point of view. However, wishes cannot be the yardstick for evaluating foreign policy. It must be based on the options a president has for action. Obama is unlucky to rule in times when these options are tightly limited - because of the global abundance of death-glorifying actors like Hamas and IS, Russia's destructive strategy, which bases its influence not on conflict resolution but on solution prevention - and because of the legacy, that George W. Bush left him.



Dr. Christoph von Marschall is diplomatic correspondent for the editor-in-chief of the Tagesspiegel. Most recently he published: “The new Obama. What to expect from the second term ”.