With the end of the year, grades are due and Obama's presidency as now at its end so we can begin to evaluate the legacy of America's forty fourth and first African American president.
Presenting himself as the anti-Bush, Obama in his 2008 election campaign critiqued the war in Iraq and overextension of U.S. military power, and promised to close Guantanamo Bay and restore U.S. global prestige. However, in practice, Obama ended up perpetuating many Bush administration policies. His administration expanded the drone war to previously unimaginable levels, escalated arms sales to dictatorship like the Saudis, violated the Westphalian principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states and perpetuated gargantuan military budgets and the U.S. empire of military bases. In his final speech on counter-terrorism delivered at MacDill Air Force base in Tampa Bay, Florida, Obama was greeted with applause when he said the U.S. had been at war for the duration of his two terms, signifying something new and terrifying in which a state of permanent warfare is the source of national pride.
Mr. Obama's foreign policies are the product of the oligarchic takeover of American politics in an era of neoliberalism. Obama's election campaigns received hundreds of thousands of dollars from General Dynamics (GD), a huge weapons manufacturer which developed cruise missiles, Abrams tanks and the F-16 and made $30 billion in 2014. Obama has also been supported by private military contractors like Science Applications International Corporation (known as "NSA-West"), which recorded billion dollar profits through his presidency. Liberal fixations with Mr. Obama's stint as a community organizer ignored that Obama had worked for the CIA in the early 1980s, having a likely family connection to the agency, and that he had studied under imperial strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski at Columbia University. All along, Obama has been very much tied to the so-called military industrial complex and his policies as president have reflected this.
The Obama administration to its credit orchestrated some diplomatic breakthroughs and changed the rhetorical tone from the Bush era.
A. Iran Nuclear Deal
The Iran nuclear deal signed in July 2015 kept Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program for the next ten years and obliges the lifting of sanctions.
B. Restoring Diplomatic Relations with Cuba
Following years of backchannel diplomacy, the Obama administration took the historic step of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, reopening the American embassy and taking Cuba off the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism.
C. Paris Climate Summit and John Kerry's Leadership on Climate Change
In the face of GOP obstructionism and climate change denial, the Obama administration signed the Paris summit on climate change, with John Kerry providing strong moral leadership on this issue. Though Obama could have done more from the beginning of his presidency, at least he did something and used his bully pulpit to sound the public alarm.
D. Pledging Bomb Removal Funds in Laos
In a visit to Vientiane as part of an Asian summit, Obama acknowledged that many villages were obliterated and countless civilians killed in the secret war and bombing undertaken by the United States as an extension of the Indochina War. Obama pledged $90 million over three years to dismantle unexploded bombs that continue to cripple and maim Laotian civilians.
E. Greater Commitment to Global Development than Bush
Even with all the military spending, the Obama administration increased investments in global health and poverty reduction initiatives, and provided moral leadership that boosted donor pledges. Obama's Feed the Future initiative assisted over nine million small farmers worldwide according to the White House. Power Africa leveraged public and private sector commitments to invest nearly $43 billion in power generation across sub-Saharan Africa. First Lady Michelle Obama's Let Girls Learn initiative also promoted expanded educational opportunities for girls in conflict ridden countries.
A. Perpetrating Endless War in Afghanistan
Obama's troop surge has embroiled the United States in an endless Vietnam-type quagmire, with the Taliban emerging stronger than ever. The bombing of a doctor's without borders hospital in Kunduz was one of many war crimes committed by U.S.-NATO forces over the last eight years.
B. Destroying Libya
At the behest of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Obama administration deceived the public by claiming Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi had massacred ten times more protestors than he actually did during the Arab Spring, spreading disinformation that Qaddafi had provided African soldiers with Viagra to induce rape. The regime change operation was carried out without congressional sanction in alliance with Great Britain and France and killed many civilians, destroying Africa's richest economy. Libya became overrun by sectarian militias and Islamists and is a failed state the U.S. now has an open ended commitment to bombing.
C. Billions in Arms to Saudis and Support for Bombing of Yemen
The Obama administration provided over $115 billion in arms sales and military training to Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive countries in the world which sponsors jihadi groups in Syria and elsewhere and aided in the crackdown of Arab Spring protestors in Bahrain, home of the U.S. 5th fleet. In violation of a 2014 treaty barring military aid to human rights violators, the State Department provided a fresh $1.29 billion sale as the Saudis were mercilessly bombing Yemen, whose Saudi-supported president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi reportedly offered the United Arab Emirates a 99-year lease to control the strategic island of Socotra, which the U.S. Navy has long coveted. Secretary of State John Kerry blamed Houthi-rebels for the thousands of Yemeni deaths, saying "they have a way of putting civilians into danger."
D. The Dronification of State Violence
Whereas George W. Bush initiated an estimated fifty or so drone strikes killing 296 terrorists and 195 civilians, Obama as of January 2016 had authorized 506 strikes that killed an estimated 3,040 terrorists and at minimum 391 civilians. Obama claimed the drone strikes were more humane than conventional weapons of war, however according to a rare outside observer, the New York Times journalist David Rhode, held hostage in Northern Waziristan between November 2008 and June 2009, life for the local population under the threat of drones was "hell on earth" as they never knew when an attack was coming and victims never hear the missile that kills them. The director of a charitable organization stated that an entire region was being "terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies....kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings or anything that involves gathering in groups." Four U.S. citizens, including Yemeni cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki and his teenage son were among the victims of Obama's drone war, which has hastened the erosion of democratic control over war-making in a context in which U.S. soldiers do not have to place their own bodies at risk.
E. Escalating New Cold War with Russia
With Putin-bashing becoming something of a sport in Washington, the Obama administration worsened U.S.-Russian relations by expanding NATO in Eastern Europe and applying economic sanctions along with the European Union. Obama's State Department fanned protests that led to the violent overthrow of Ukraine's semi-autocratic but elected pro-Russian government, prompting Russia to annex (or according to some reunify with) Crimea, while providing nearly $760 million in security assistance to a neo-Nazi backed regime on Russia's border.
F. About Face on Nuclear Weapons
After winning the Nobel Peace Prize for pledging to cut back on nuclear weapons, Obama initiated a trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program prompted in part by lobbying undertaken by Bechtel Corporation which runs the Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory. Obama's program includes development of new "mini" nuclear weapon, whose size and "smart" technology says a leading General ensures that the use of nukes is "no longer unthinkable."
G. Pivot to Asia and Stationing Military bases in Cheju-do Island, site of Korean War Massacre
With blithe disregard for history, Obama re-concentrated U.S. military forces in the Asia Pacific as a means of containing Chinese power. The so-called "Asia Pivot" coincided with efforts to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a secretive and corporatist free-trade policy which tramples on labor rights and environmental protections. Among the worst aspects of the "Asia Pivot" was the rearming of Indonesian military units implicated in past human rights abuses and the construction of a military base on the South Korean island of Cheju-do, the scene of a massacre backed by U.S. troops on the eve of the Korean War since designated as a world heritage and peace site.
H. Expansion of U.S. Military Base Network
According to journalist Fred Kaplan, Obama's base budget exceeded that of George W. Bush by $816.7 billion ($4,121.2 billion for Obama's two terms). Obama signed agreements for new military bases in Colombia and Honduras, upgraded and expanded U.S. base facilities in Europe and the Middle East and established bases in Darwin Australia and Singapore as part of the "pivot to Asia." Leaders who opposed base facilities were among those targeted for regime change, subjected to intimidation or treated icily. The list includes Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, Bénéwendé Stanislas Sankara, a relative of the late leftist hero Thomas Sankara who would have jeopardized a U.S. Special Operations Air Detachment which flies drones throughout the Saharan region, and Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio who wanted to move the Futenma air station off Okinawa and opposed building a base in Henoko that threatened to damage coral reefs and wreck the last feeding ground of the dugong, an endangered species.
I. Financing Wasteful High-Weapons That Don't Make Us Safer
The Obama administration promoted a plan to acquire 2,443 joint strike F-35 stealth fighters over 20 years at a cost of nearly $400 billion, though the F-35 has been plagued by endless technical problems and is considered by military analysts to be a lemon. Jonathan Marshall in Consortium News reported that the U.S. Navy currently has only 272 deployable ships as investment by Obama's Pentagon in littoral combat ships (LCSs) has literally broke the Navy. Five of eight LCSs which cost taxpayers $478 million, have been crippled by construction defects, design errors or crew mistakes and have been found in a Pentagon audit to be "not operationally suitable in war" or capable of completing a thirty day mission.
Pentagon planning documents outline the goal of miniaturized and fully autonomous drones by 2030 armed with switchblades and mounted rockets which can make decisions without human intervention as well as an insect outfitted with micro-explosive bombs able to kill moving targets with just grams of explosives, and a small rhinoceros and cheetah robot that can run 28 miles per hour and jump over obstacles and carry four hundred pounds of military equipment. Is this what our society really wants to invest in when there are acute social and environmental problems science can be better applied in helping to solve?
J. Expanding the use of Private Military Contractors (PMCs)
As of April, there were at least 30,000 private contractors in Afghanistan and there are approximately 7,100 contractors supporting U.S. government operations in Iraq, doing jobs from washing laundry and providing security on bases to training police and military officers to advising the Kurdish regional government and Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Shawn McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary - Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order, told The Daily Beast that "contractors encourage mission creep because they allow the administration to put more people on the ground than they report to the American people." They also enable executive secrecy by performing covert operations the American public may not support like aspects of the drone war they are involved with and the smuggling of arms to the rebels in Syria purchased from al Qaeda militia leaders in Libya.
K. Loosening Arms Control Regulations
The Obama administration loosened control over military exports, leading the U.S. share of the global market for arms sales to reach an almost monopolistic 70% of all weapons sold in 2011. Arms sales facilitated by Obama's Pentagon topped $46 billion in 2015 and $40 billion in 2016. Recipients include major human rights violators like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Pakistan, Iraq, Uganda, Nigeria and Colombia as well as Israel and the Saudis.
L. Backing Right Wing Coup in Honduras as Part of Efforts to Contain the Bolivarian Revolution
The Obama administration tacitly supported the 2009 coup, led by two School of the Americas graduates that ousted progressive Honduran leader Manuel Zelaya. The Hillary-Clinton led State Department recognized and provided military support and police training to the post-coup government which has had a horrendous human rights record, symbolized in its complicity in the murder of environmental activist Berta Isabel Caceres Flores.
M. Failing to Close Guantanamo Bay or Prosecute Bush Administration Torturers
Alfred W. McCoy in Torture and Impunity: The CIAs Coercive Interrogation Doctrine (University of Wisconsin Press, 2012) brilliantly analyzes the ramifications of granting impunity to torturers. He adopts a comparative analysis with the Philippines where the failure to prosecute torturers from the era Ferdinand Marcos paved the way for more systematic state abuse.
N. Lying about Chemical Weapons and Supporting Jihadist Rebels in Syria
In Fall 2013, John Kerry and Samantha Power invoked Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons to push for military intervention, though when British intelligence obtained a sample of Sarin gas used in the August 21st attack, lab analysis demonstrated that the gas used didn't match the batches known to exist in the Syrian army's chemical weapons arsenal. Actual exposure to Sarin appears to have been minimal or non-existent for 31 of the 36 people sampled (88%) in a UN probe. The Obama administration was thus using deception to try and sell another war, which luckily the public repudiated. His administration at the same time helped prolong Syria's civil war by covertly supplying Islamic rebels alongside the Saudis, some reported to be al Qaeda affiliates.
O. Reinvading Iraq
Obama supported creation of a $700 million embassy on a 104 acre compound which is bigger than the Vatican and broke his campaign pledge there would be "no boots on the ground" in military operations against the Islamic State by reinvading Iraq and sending troops into Syria. Besides precision guided bombs and drones, the Pentagon unveiled an unmanned [uncrewed] ground vehicle (UGV) with a remotely operated 12.7mm cannon equipped with thermal sights to take back Mosul and began incorporating cyber operators into its conventional military units in the attempt to neutralize ISIS's ability to communicate. The operations have yielded limited success, however, because as James Lewis, a cyber-policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies stated: "scruffy insurgents aren't the best target for high-tech weapons;" and they were able to switch their own servers and other hardware to stay ahead of cyber-attacks. After over a quarter century of military engagement, a 2016 poll found that more than 90 percent of young people in Iraq now consider the United States an "enemy" of their country, boding ill for any future military operations Donald Trump may be planning.
P. Expanding Military Aid to Israel
Obama provided billions in weapons to the Israelis including hellfire missiles and bunker buster bombs capable of penetrating six meters of reinforced concrete known as "Saddamizers," which were used to pummel Gaza's high rise towers and wipe out entire families as they sheltered in their homes in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge. At the end of his term, Obama expanded the annual military allotment to Israel from $3.1 to a whopping $3.8 billion per annum.
Q. Going After Whistle-Blowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning
Where is the antiwar movement and solidarity committees to support Ms. Manning as she rots in prison for thirty years for exposing war crimes and other state abuses?
R. Betraying MLKs Legacy by Using His Nobel Prize Winning Speech to Oppose Pacifism
Obama said: "We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.' As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
This speech fits with the trend by which the United States like all other aggressive world powers presents its adoption of violence as a necessity in fighting evil. Left out is how the U.S. has helped to create the conditions breeding the growth of Al-Qaeda and its offshoots and has often supported Islamic fundamentalism. MLK referred to the U.S. government as the "greatest purveyor of violence in the world" which it has sadly remained in the Obama years.
S. Dirty Wars and Recolonization of Africa
As a case in point, Nick Turse of tomdispatch.com reported that the U.S. under Obama amassed over 60 military outposts on the "dark continent" in 34 countries and in 2014 alone carried out 674 military activities, nearly two missions per day, an almost 300% jump in the number of annual operations, exercises, and military-to-military training activities since U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established in 2008. One of the dirty wars was in Somalia where the U.S. admitted to 13 ground raids and air strikes in 2016, one of which killed over a dozen Somali government soldiers (instead of al Shabab targets) as a result of poor intelligence feeds.
T. Expanding the War and Drugs and Atrocious Plan Mérida
Benefiting from the hip image his Madison Avenue sponsors cultivated for him that included his admitting to smoking cigarettes and marijuana as a rebellious youth, Obama made veiled comments about having "bigger fish to fry" than marijuana users. His administration however spent over $9 billion per year on narcotic law enforcement, tripling the total spent by War on Drugs guru Ronald Reagan. In 2009, Obama inaugurated the billion dollar Plan Mérida, modeled after the Plan Colombia, which focused heavily on military and police assistance to Mexican security forces who are infamously corrupt. Many of the weapons actually bolstered the arsenal of the cartels responsible for grisly violence and were used by the Mexican army to suppress peasant uprisings. Coinciding with the militarization of the U.S.-Mexican border, Mérida fueled escalating cycles of violence and has done little to curtail the drug supply.
Final Assessment: With a Democratic Congressional majority in both Houses following the 2008 election, Obama had political capital he could have used to uphold campaign pledges such as closing Guantanamo Bay and cutting back on nuclear weapons and towards reorienting U.S. foreign policy. Obama, however, demobilized progressives, and used executive authority to perpetuate or expand on Bush administration policies, including with the drone war. There were some diplomatic breakthroughs as in the Nixon years and relatively strong leadership on climate change in the second term, but the Obama years stand as a great disappointment when a state of permanent warfare was institutionalized and signs of imperial decay became more manifest.
* My next column will grade Obama's domestic policy
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).