Obama has not managed to draw a bottom line under the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin is making the most of America’s failure in Syria.
It is difficult to find anyone who will defend Barack Obama’s legacy in terms of foreign policy, even among his allies and admirers. The normalization of relations with Cuba and Iran certainly constitute a great success. But this does not erase the main issue: judged to be weak and fickle, the American president is blamed for having reduced America’s influence on the world stage, a belief that has substantially contributed to the victory of Donald Trump.
His decision not to take action in Syria in the summer of 2013 was taken very badly by his allies, in particular by France, where the planes were ready to take off. Worse, his non-interventionism is suspected to have contributed to the conflict getting stuck in a rut. The retaking of Aleppo by Bashar Assad’s government marks a patent failure from that perspective. “I don’t like the idea that we are made to police the whole world, but our lack of leadership creates a void where problems are swallowed up,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.*
Obama’s delays in confronting Chinese (China Sea) and Russian (Ukraine, Syria, etc.) power plays have been equally disappointing. Shunned by the international community for having annexed Crimea, Vladimir Putin has thus regained his place in global diplomacy. Last September, he proposed setting up a “broad coalition” against the Islamic State, directly competing with the coalition formed by the United States. After trampling on United Nations principles and annexing Ukraine, this is the Russian president who pretends to play the unifier. The accession of Donald Trump to the White House is likely to once again reinforce this position.
It’s an embarrassment for Obama, who has tried to assume the role of conciliator for a year, orchestrating a large international coalition that notably includes France and the United Kingdom. But we are still waiting for the results: the air strikes carried out in Iraq and Syria have slowed down the growth of jihadis without stopping them. The jihadis have extended their influence to new countries, including Libya, Afghanistan and Egypt. The United States has also failed to train the 5,400 Syrian rebels expected to fight the Islamic State group on the ground. The fight against the Islamic State group is now headed up by the Russians and Turks in Syria, an unprecedented alliance that marginalizes the United States.
Obama has another regret; not having completely drawn a bottom line under the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – a promise that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. More than 8,000 soldiers are still positioned in Afghanistan to counter the threat of the Taliban. Some 4,600 remain deployed in Iraq.
*Editor’s note: This quoted remark, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.