Skip to Content


Barack Obama: anatomy of a failure

The President is heir to a mistaken sense of America’s place in the world. But he has played a bad hand poorly

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

President George W. Bush’s place in history is already guaranteed, fixed by a series of monumental blunders that no amount of revisionism will ever be able to whitewash. By comparison, historians are likely to have a hard time drawing a bead on Barack Obama. How could such an obviously gifted President, swept into office on a wave of immense expectations, have managed to accomplish so little in his attempted management of global affairs? Over the past six years ‘Yes, we can!’ has become ‘No, he hasn’t.’ What went wrong?

Several answers to this question present themselves. The first and most important is that the expectations to which Obama–mania gave rise were from the outset utterly unrealistic. But consider this irony: the people who George W. Bush had brought to power eight years prior harboured many of those same expectations regarding the exercise of what pundits and politicians like to call American global leadership.

Bush and his chief lieutenants — people like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz — had believed it incumbent on the United States to run the world. The outcome of the Cold War, the central event of their professional lives, had endowed upon the United States the prerogative and the obligation to do just that. America had won and winning had placed America — the sole superpower, the benign global hegemon, the indispensable nation — in charge. It was just that simple.

Those most enthusiastically promoting Obama for the presidency back in 2008 did not, in fact, dispute this interpretation. Their gripe with Bush was that he had exercised the wrong type of leadership. Rather than challenging the triumphalist views that had gained wide currency in the wake of the Cold War, they looked to Obama to undo Bush’s mistakes: end the Iraq War, shut down Guantanamo, and forswear torture, for example. They were counting on Obama to restore the United States to its proper place as unquestioned global leader. In foreign policy, this defined his mandate.

But the mandate rested on false premises. The US had not ‘won’ the Cold War. Rather, with the Soviet-American rivalry having inflicted massive damage on principals and bystanders alike, the Soviet leadership had finally called it quits, bequeathing to Washington the consequences. Rather than producing a so-called unipolar order, the passing of the Cold War revealed that widely held assumptions about bipolarity had actually concealed a far more complex reality. According to triumphalist maths, 2 – 1 = 1. At least it is supposed to. What administrations beginning with that of the elder President Bush actually found was that 2 – 1 = one helluva mess.

So the first explanation for why the Obama presidency has produced such disappointing results is that Americans and especially members of the American political elite misapprehend the world and by extension the role allotted to the United States in that world. Obama himself is heir to those misapprehensions — which brings us to the second explanation for his lacklustre record in foreign policy, namely, his own naivety and inexperience.

Obama moved into the Oval Office about as well equipped to serve as global CEO as Kim Kardashian is to run one of Wall Street’s larger investment banks. Little evidence exists to suggest that prior to becoming President he had evolved a distinctive world-view. His life to that point had offered him little opportunity to do so. A quick study, Obama had instead assimilated the standard collection of platitudes and clichés that in Washington serve as a substitute for first-hand knowledge and careful analysis. Substantively, about the only thing that voters back in 2008 knew about his foreign policy plans was that he was going to get the United States out of Iraq (‘the dumb war’), while upping the ante in Afghanistan (‘the necessary war’). Oh, and he was going to close Guantanamo tout de suite.

The diplomatic challenges of the times called for someone with seasoning, subtlety, and sophistication — a Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight D. Eisenhower or Richard Nixon, for instance. (That’s the FDR of 1943–1944, not the FDR of 1933–1934.) Obama brought little of those qualities to office.

Furthermore — and here we come to the third explanation for his administration’s lacklustre performance — as President, Obama surrounded himself with mediocrities, hacks and time-servers. One need not romanticise the achievements (nor overlook the faults) of individuals such as Henry Stimson, George Marshall, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski to say that no one of comparable calibre has found a place in the senior ranks of the present administration. Members of Obama’s inner circle need not fear the possibility of some smartass journalist making them the subjects of a collective biography called The Best and the Brightest.

The issue here is not intentions or efforts, but outcomes. As secretaries of state, both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry poured themselves into the job. The same can be said of Obama’s successive Pentagon chiefs, Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel. They’ve given it their all. But their all hasn’t been good enough. At the end of the day, as in business, as in sports, so too in statecraft: either you get it done or you don’t.

In that regard, Obama’s signature initiatives have produced little in terms of positive results. The Iraq War that Obama ended has resumed. The struggle in Afghanistan that he vowed to win is headed toward a conclusion that few will characterise as victorious. The Cairo initiative launched with great fanfare and intended to mark a new beginning in US relations with the Islamic world fizzled. Sadly, Secretary Kerry’s valiant attempt to settle the Israeli-Palestinian dispute came to naught. A charitable evaluation of the ‘Asia pivot’ is that it remains a work in progress. As for the ‘reset’ with Russia, well, the less said the better. Oh, and Guantanamo is still open.

Granted, Obama can claim a handful of successes. He ‘got’ bin Laden. He has negotiated a promising climate change agreement with China. And he may yet cut a deal with Iran that places curbs on that country’s nuclear programme. Let’s hope so.

Members of Obama’s dwindling fan club can accurately claim that he has avoided the truly epic gaffes that marked his predecessor’s term in office. That’s a claim not to sniffed at, but not quite justifying the Nobel Peace Prize that Obama received as a sort of signing bonus at the beginning of what was supposed to be a transformative presidency.

For my money, the Obama legacy is likely to be defined by two developments that have not yet fully matured: drones and cyberwarfare. In both of these areas, Obama can claim to have done pioneering work. Or perhaps he has released demons. Whether a decade or two from now we will view the consequences as positive or negative remains to be seen. Cross your fingers.

Obama’s more strident critics — the types who appear on Fox News or publish shrill op-eds in the Wall Street Journal — denounce him as a far-left radical. Obama, they contend, is way, way outside of the American political mainstream (and by implication does not really qualify as fully American).

The charge is plainly goofy. Here’s an assessment that is more likely to stick: when it comes to foreign policy, this very smart man was not quite smart enough to appreciate the magnitude of the problems he inherited, to understand how little he knew, and to recruit a team with sufficient talent to help him bridge the yawning gap between the first two.

Andrew J. Bacevich, currently Columbia University’s George McGovern Fellow, is writing a military history of America’s war for the greater Middle East.

Show comments