Obama never understood how history works

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tags: foreign policy, Obama legacy



David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers. His most recent book is "Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency."

Barack Obama's impending departure from the White House has put many Americans in an elegiac mood. Despite an average approval rating of only 48 percent - the lowest, surprisingly, of our last five presidents - he has always been beloved, if not revered, by the scribbling classes. Just as many prematurely deemed Bush the worst president ever, so many are now ready to enshrine Obama as one of the all-time greats.

Or at least they were until the fall of Aleppo.

Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Americans have regarded the carnage there as essentially a humanitarian disaster. For Obama, contemplating his legacy, the awful death and destruction that Syria has suffered - the 400,000 deaths, the wholesale wasting of civilian neighborhoods, the wanton use of sarin gas and chlorine gas and barrel bombs, the untold atrocities - has raised the old question of how future generations will judge an American president's passivity or ineffectuality in the face of mass slaughter.

Perhaps Obama has been hoping for a dispensation, since presidential reputations have never suffered much for such sins of omission. With a few notable exceptions, biographies, textbooks, obituaries, and even public memory have dwelled little on George W. Bush's inaction in Darfur, Bill Clinton's floundering over Rwanda, George H.W. Bush's dithering about Bosnia, Jimmy Carter's fecklessness in Cambodia, Gerald Ford's cold realism toward East Timor, or Richard Nixon's complicity in Bangladesh. "Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" Hitler reportedly said in 1939, predicting that the world's amnesia about the Turks' mass killings should allow his armies to proceed in all ruthlessness without fear of judgment. We might think of those words in considering how little attention in our history books is given to our presidents' very limited roles in standing up to atrocities overseas.

And yet now, as Obama's presidency winds down, and a ceasefire begins to take effect Syria that Washington played no role in negotiating, it's becoming clear that the loss of life and the humanitarian crisis represent just the first of many consequences that historians will have to assess as they ask how the United States, under Obama's leadership, chose to deal, or not to deal, with the Syrian Civil War. And if historians tend to give presidents a pass on failing to arrest slaughter, they are not so generous in evaluating the loss of American influence around the world. ...





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