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Bacevich and Mearsheimer on Obama’s Legacy

Historians in the News
tags: Obama legacy



With Donald Trump set to take the oath of office and become America’s 45th president in a matter of days, this is an appropriate time to begin to evaluate Barack Obama’s presidency. To help analyze his performance on foreign policy and national security, I spoke with two eminent foreign policy analysts: historian Andrew Bacevich of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies and political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. In part one of our discussion, we look at Obama’s foreign policy and look ahead to what the Trump administration’s foreign policy may bring.

LobeLog: Looking back to America’s position in the world when he took office in 2009, how would you evaluate Barack Obama’s performance in terms of foreign policy?

Andrew Bacevich: I think the place to begin is to remember that Barack Obama made two promises. The first promise was to end the Iraq War, which he dismissed as “the stupid war,” and the second promise was to win the Afghanistan War, which he described as “the necessary war.” Lo and behold, here we are eight years later and he has been unable to deliver on either promise. I don’t believe that those two failures alone should fully define or inform our judgments as to his success or failure as a president, but they have to constitute two very big black marks on his record.

When I look beyond those two failures, it seems to me that the record is at best mixed. To his credit, he gave up on George W. Bush’s illusions of being able to bring that part of the world into conformity with American wishes by simply relying on American military power. He gave up on the “invade and occupy to transform” model that President Bush pursued first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. We can credit President Obama with reducing the costs sustained by the United States in terms of Americans being killed and the number of dollars being wasted.

However, he has not devised any kind of a coherent strategy to bring about the restoration of stability in the Greater Middle East. One thing he has done that may hold hope for the future is the Iran nuclear deal. That deal eased pressures from hawks to attack Iran in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. It also creates a decent possibility of bringing Iran in from the cold and thereby resetting the region in ways that could—emphasize “could,” no assurances—10-20 years from now, facilitate the restoration of something approximating stability.

John Mearsheimer: I agree with everything Andy said, but I’d like to build on it and come at it from a slightly different perspective. My position is that the United States is much worse off today than it was in 2009, when Obama became the president. Just to focus on the Middle East, where Andy focused most of his attention, I think it is quite clear that, except for the Iran nuclear deal, under President Obama we have helped create a zone of disaster in that region of the world. Obama is principally responsible for getting the United States involved in Syria—although we didn’t use military force there, we have played a key role in the effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, which has failed and has created a disastrous situation. We also played a key role in bringing down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and helped turn that country into the Wild West. And the situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan continues to be basically terrible, certainly from an American point of view. So, we’ve made a giant mess in the Middle East. It started under Bush, but it’s continued under Obama. ...

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