Herding Cats*

Just like every other US president, Obama has come to power with great expectations not only because he was a democrat but also for the first time in the lines of history, the country was going to be in the very hands of a black president. Like the precedents, he had his own pros and cons shaped by the shaky grounds of economic setbacks, mostly aggravated by the two ongoing wars, inherited from Bush, kept limiting his potency not only in domestic but also in foreign affairs. While explaining the two sides of the same coin, one should deeply acknowledge the whole picture and what lies behind. Accordingly, the following will mainly cover the achievements and the disappointments together with the missed opportunities of the Obama administration in a brief but an incisive comparison with the former Bush administration. After setting the background, the foreign policy steps of Obama in an international framework, will be analyzed carefully and not by favoring one perspective and leaving the other outside. As we are trying to fully understand what the current world has gone through since 2009, when Obama first came to the office, and how successful the Obama presidency was during all this time.

Since my task is to present an analysis, it is rather unnecessary to discuss the events in detail, but still, it is essential to deal with what the achievements and the infamous disappointments were in a comparative tone. The challenger role of the US started even before 2000s, with the Bush and his famous saying “If you are not with us, you are against us” was explaining all. Bush, as a war-time commander in chief, managed to lead with spreading fear and paranoia seeds into the public, created a massive islamophobic demagogy in people’s minds. He made a mess out of Iraq and created a severe mistrust between the US and the Middle-East, a mistrust that has discredited the US leadership all across the world and left a heavy burden on the Obama’s shoulders. This dissipated game of power was nothing but a weight on the US economy on the inside but also creating an impotent US image on the outside. Ending the war may count as an achievement but it should also considered that concluding it had nothing to do with Obama’s being democrat but rather about what internal and external powers have pushed him to act so. There is an on-going recession in the US economy in terms of low growth,  high unemployment which created a deep need of internal constancy backed by a stable external environment.

War in Afghanistan, on the other hand, to defeat the Taliban started with the Bush’s global war on terror policy, seemed to come to a resolution with the recent Strategic Agreement between the US and the Karzai Administration. But many people still have not convinced that the war is actually over since there are still high capacity troops of NATO (ISAF) forces located in the region which do not seem to leave for a while and the Taliban is still proceeding. To put it differently, the whole point of the war in the first place, which was to form a viable democratic Afghanistan, has doomed to fail. The situation brings the question whether the US’s main task in the region was to end the Taliban regime or was it just an illusion to cover the hidden goal which was to capture the region that has a crucial importance between the two rising powers, namely the China and the Russia in the way of setting up her own facilities in the Middle-East. Moreover, death of the Osama Bin Laden in 2011 brought a huge support for Obama when he announced as the terrorism has came to an end, but in fact the second highest leader of the El-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is still outside and active.

NATO is an important tool for the US foreign policy since Obama always stresses the importance of the multilateralism instead of the unilateral tone of Bush. However, the existence of such an organization initiates insecurity between the Russia and the US since Russia is in deep fear of being undermined in terms of power and nuclear capabilities. With the Obama administration, the “reset” of the relations came to the table. It is true that the START has been renewed but the Russia has her own doubts about the establishment of the missile defense bases in the Europe. Accordingly, Putin has refused to attend the latest G8 meeting and the NATO council since he had not got the written word of Obama on the European missile defense issue and in fact, Obama will not likely to step back, like all of his formers. In short, there is only a true tone of “reset” in a very limited set of relations, the rest is history.

The one thing they happened to agree on, is the containment of the Iran, although the Russia does not directly involve, imposed embargo on Iran serves her interests in the way of becoming the sole supplier of the energy market.  In this context, with her non-interfering stand, we may say that the Russia is trying to re-adopt the soft-power policy of the former Soviets and is planning to re-gain the trust of the Middle-East and the Central-Asia countries, the trust that the US has already lost.  Iran has so many advantages against the international system and happens to preserve a vivid threat to the Israel, which has a cardinal importance for the US. The Iran does not likely to end her nuclear program since no embargos, in this sense, have a full effect on the Iran since the public support of the Iranian government depends on the existence of an “outside enemy”, plus, the sanctions are nothing but counterproductive. It is fair to state that like the formers, Obama has also failed to transform the Iran-West disagreement into a partnership framework.

The rise of the Arab spring whether initially promoted by an outside or inside force, proved the fact that it was their struggle in the way of achieving freedom and modernity. No outside forces, including the US, managed to lead or shape the process since the local dynamics were much more effective. Moreover, the financial crisis blocked the option of involvement and forced Obama to act mostly as an observer although he has promised to establish peace in the Middle-East as his top priority when he first come to power.

As a conclusion, it is uneasy to express that during Obama’s presidency the US had a clear road map for the future. Although Obama was sensible and promising, he failed to resolute many issues including Iranian and North Korean nuclear program, rebuilding the peace in the Middle-East, uplifting the US economy, re-creating the global credibility, eliminating the challenger roles of Russia and the China and so on. The system is no longer shaped by sole power, relations are rather multipolar, so herding cats is no longer an easy task, not even for the US alone. The Nobel Prize has given to Obama for a reason, but if we take everything into consideration, it is hard to distinguish any difference between the world of 2009 and the world of today. In the light of everything, was he successful? The answer is rather subjective, that is for sure.

Nazlı Zeynep BOZDEMİR

Hacettepe Üniversitesi

Uluslararası İlişkiler

*Herding Cats: An idiomatic saying that refers to an attempt to control or organize a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic. It implies a task that is extremely difficult or impossible to do, primarily due to chaotic factors. (Taken from Wikipedia)

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