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Today Donald Trump takes office as President of the United States of America. As President Obama, walks off into the sunset, I take a quick look at his foreign policy successes and failures.


I was living in Afghanistan when Barack Obama became the President. I have spent 3 years in the Horn and East of Africa in his Presidency. The rest in India. I work with Oxfam and am associated with our programs in all parts of the developing world. My answer is therefore, probably, severely influenced by my work experience. I write this from a purely personal perspective. I am not, in any way, speaking for my organisation.


I feel that the Obama foreign policy has by and large not worked. I hesitate to call it a failure because the world that President Obama inherited was all messed up and it is beyond the power of one person, however powerful, to fix it. It was always evident that it is going to take a few generations, if that, to get something better out of what we face today.

Also the candidate Obama came as a breath of fresh air and a beacon of HOPE. Around the world, well my world for sure. That meant that the expectations were very high and possibly unreasonable. Which means that the perception of failure is that much stronger.

With these caveats in mind, here are a few areas where President Obama’s foreign policies could have been better.

  1. Repeal / softening of the anti-terrorism laws that have an adverse impact on humanitarian action as I explain in my answer on Quora to How have anti-terrorism laws affected humanitarian aid? I feel that these laws came out of a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 and President Obama could have taken action to loosen these laws a bit more than he actually did.
  2. Delayed & limited intervention in Syria: I know & understand where the reluctance to put troops on the ground comes from. However, the situation in Syria is now so totally messed up that a solution that will alleviate the miseries of the ordinary people there seems to be difficult to imagine.
  3. Palestine: Not spending adequate energy to ensure there is a peaceful solution, perhaps two-State solution, to address the issue. President Obama did spend time talking to Benyamin Netanyahu but one suspects that the matters discussed were more related to aid to Israel & Iran nuclear deal rather than Palestine. An opportunity lost, I think. The refusal to veto the UNSC resolution against settlements by Israel in occupied Palestine and the criticism of Israel by Kerry was a case of too little too late. It also showed the ambiguity with which President Obama approached relations with Israel; he continued massive amounts of aid and yet criticised their actions. 
  4. Being firmer with leaders on the African continent. President Obama had tremendous equity with the people of Africa. After all here was a ‘one of their own’ becoming the most powerful person in the world. He could have used this equity and the American muscle to push through some reforms in the areas of gay rights, Presidential terms. Make no mistake, he was severely critical of governments which discriminated against gay people and he has openly scorned leaders who extended their stay at the top through dubious means. But this came across as lip service; little if anything changed on the ground.
  5. President Obama intensifying sanctions and expelling Russian diplomats for the hacking scandal when only 20 odd days were left in his Presidency was quite a lame act. Putin responded by not retaliating and thus proved to be more politically astute. Donald Trump jumping in and praising Putin makes it even worse.

Other initiatives that would have been great to see were

  1. Closure of Guantanamo bay, if only to symbolically signal that the USA still believes in rule-of-law and will not sacrifice principles to gain a feeling of temporary security.
  2. Withdrawal from Afghanistan and related to that
  3. A stand on Pakistan’s support for terrorism. I suspect though that the US thinking is that the support to LeT and JeM is more a subcontinental issue and the fact that the USA needs Pakistan for it’s Afghanistan policy overrides the terrorism issue.

I want to end by saying that some of the more brilliant initiatives have been

  1. The Iran nuclear deal
  2. Withdrawal from Iraq – It is deposing Saddam that has caused the conficts in Iraq and the rise of ISIS, not the withdrawal of US forces. In any case it was unreasonable to expect the Americans to run Iraq.
  3. Reopening of ties with Cuba.
  4. Snubbing Philippines President Duterte’s by refusing to give him time of the day. This places the US interests in the South China seas in peril but the snub was necessary, once more to signal the importance of due process and rule of law.

I believe that Barack Obama has been inspirational and a wonderful President. His contributions (Obamacare, breaking the glass ceiling, dignity, humour, passion for justice and most importantly bringing in HOPE) have been great. History will look at President Obama much more kindly than the present political discourse seems to indicate. I hope he continues to contribute to a better world in the years to come, after he gets a well deserved break.

Makarand

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