Obama was no hawk, but his foreign intervention has been reckless

Obama's final press conference of 2016
Obama's final press conference of 2016

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Story highlights

  • Kristian: Obama's defenders say he is sane and rational; his critics say he is inactive
  • By what mad metric is seven wars inactivity?

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)The end of President Barack Obama's tenure in office is a surprising time, with assessments of his achievements unexpectedly colored by how they compare to the unpredictability and tabloid glamour of President-elect Donald Trump.

It is perhaps this contrast which has fed an emerging narrative of Obama as a fundamentally quiet president, possessed of a character described by his supporters as sane, reasonable, and calm. By contrast, his detractors see the outgoing President as a man plagued by timidity and paralyzed by inaction, especially where foreign policy is concerned.
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The Obama approach to war and diplomacy, these critics contend, has been defined by reticence and lassitude with no clear conviction of US global leadership.
    The fundamental problem with this story is how poorly it fits with the facts of Obama's foreign policy career. Though the characterization of the President's dispassionate personal temperament seems fair, to confuse his manner with his record would be a grave mistake.
    Obama aide: We've lost sleep over Syria
    Obama aide: We've lost sleep over Syria

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    The Obama foreign policy legacy, though certainly different in superficial style from that of his predecessor, is fundamentally an extension of the reckless interventionism he was first elected to repudiate.
    This is not to suggest that Obama's foreign policy has been thoughtless or aggressive at every turn. He is set to exit the Oval Office without putting tens of thousands of American boots on the ground in Syria, as the bipartisan Washington foreign policy establishment has often suggested. Yet even Obama's Syria policy can hardly be labeled inactive: His low-profile intervention there has the US fighting itself by proxy, may have extended Aleppo's suffering, and in all this never offered a convincing scenario which might be dubbed a win for US interests.
    Any restraint Obama has shown in Syria is absent elsewhere in his foreign policy. After promising to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama will leave office with those two conflicts very much intact and joined by active US military involvement in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and, of course, Syria.
    Obama launched or relaunched all these interventions without constitutionally-required authorization from Congress. In Pakistan, Somalia, and particularly Yemen -- a country at risk of starving to death with the Obama administration's help -- he did so without significant public disclosure. By what mad metric is seven wars inactivity?
    Obama: 'No doubt' U.S. drones have killed civilians
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    Obama: 'No doubt' U.S. drones have killed civilians 01:04
    If Obama has a signature war tactic, it is surely his drone program. Though begun in the latter days of the George W. Bush administration, it was in his successor's hands that drone warfare has come into its own, with grim results. Obama's drone strikes function on a "guilty until proven innocent" rule that some argue allows the White House to deceptively underestimate the civilian death toll as estimated by neutral observers, perhaps as high as 50 innocents killed for every one confirmed terrorist. Drone strikes engender fear, hatred, and a lust for revenge among Middle East populations like little else, and the sheer pace at which Obama approves them obliterates any suggestion of inaction.
    In a strange point of convergence with his hawkish critics, Obama prefers to cast himself as a moderate, reluctant warrior. "The measure of strength internationally is not simply by how many countries we're occupying, or how many missiles we're firing," he was reported as saying in the Washington Examiner last year, "but the strength of our diplomacy and the strength of our commitment to human rights and our belief that we've got to cooperate with other countries together to solve massive problems like terrorism but also like climate change."
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    Whether one finds that vision aspirational or dangerous, the key point is it has little connection to the reality of Obama's foreign policy record or the Washington foreign policy climate more broadly. As Daniel Larison argues at The American Conservative, it is "a measure of how thoroughly our foreign policy debates are warped by a 'do something' mentality that such an activist president could ever be accused of inaction abroad."
    Obama's fans, critics, and the man himself are equally (if differently) deluded if in his incessantly interventionist record they see inaction. Whether from friend or foe, that assessment reflects not the Obama presidency, but rather the assessors' inability to conceive of a true foreign policy of prudence and restraint.