Could this new cold war be of Obama’s doing – not Trump’s?
Historians recently rated Barack Obama as the twelfth-best president in America's history. On foreign policy, they lauded his pragmatism, multilateralism and internationalism. These traits all contrast favourably with his predecessor's preference for unilateralism and “cowboy diplomacy” and his successor's scorn for Washington's traditional Western allies and for multilateral organisations such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
But not everyone agrees. In the first comprehensive and critical analysis of Obama's foreign policy, historian Jeremy Kuzmarov highlights Obama's mistakes and reckless policies with consequences around the globe, especially the tensions with China and Russia that continue to escalate today. The book also advances a leftist critique that is at odds with how mainstream historians view Obama.
Like much of his previous scholarship, Kuzmarov brings a revisionist sensibility — like historians such as William Appleman Williams, who blamed Washington for the outbreak of the Cold War — to investigating the 44th president. He does not aim to offer “impartial” or “balanced” history; for him, such an approach has allowed former policymakers to escape culpability for mistakes that heightened tensions with other countries and led to human rights abuses and even military defeat.
Obama's Unending Wars: Fronting the Foreign Policy of the Permanent Warfare State, therefore, while an ambitious effort to analyse Obama's foreign policy record, offers neither a nuanced nor empathetic appraisal of the former president. Nonetheless, Kuzmarov's book is serious and fair and should prompt historians — and the rest of us — to re-evaluate Obama's legacy.
Kuzmarov's primary criticism of Obama's foreign policy is that it institutionalised a permanent warfare state, despite promises to the contrary. On the campaign trail, Obama had cultivated an image as a peace candidate. But rather than living up to his campaign promises, and using his immense rhetorical skills to reverse the policies of his predecessor, he largely used them to cover for continuing George W. Bush's foreign policies, including solidifying a surveillance state, punishing whistleblowers and expanding drone attacks.
Obama's hawkish foreign policies were evident around the globe. Take Africa: Kuzmarov argues that Obama employed the same paternalistic lens as his white predecessors and “promoted the colonialist assumption that America and its institutions were superior ... while burying the West's complicities” in crimes committed by allies, including closing critical media outlets, rigging elections and torturing or murdering the political opposition.
Seeing the region through this lens dictated an expansion of US military bases and military training in Africa, slashing funding for Aids treatment and backing some of the continent's most oppressive regimes. Obama even removed restrictions on funding regimes that used child soldiers, while claiming to protect human rights by sending US troops to hunt down warlords such as Joseph Kony, who used child soldiers.
The gap between Obama's rhetoric and his foreign policies extended to the Middle East. Kuzmarov's chapter on Libya arguably best demonstrates the shortcomings of Obama's policies. It portrays both Obama and his first-term secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, as hawks who did not seriously consider the consequences of the military intervention to oust Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The American intervention resulted in a failed state after the Libyan parliament replicated the disastrous policy the United States had pursued in Iraq: barring anyone who worked for the previous regime from holding office.
A similar disaster followed US intervention in Syria. Despite waging a war against Islamic radicalism, the administration supported Islamist militants in its effort to topple dictator Bashar Assad. It also relied on reports by the White Helmets, a group with links to fundamentalists, to demonise Syria and galvanise support for US intervention.
Kuzmarov's criticism should not be dismissed simply as a defence of Assad. It raises a broader and troubling question: why is the United States still arming radical Islamic paramilitaries, given how badly this has backfired in the past, most especially in Afghanistan?
These policies largely evaded scrutiny because of Obama's hope-filled rhetoric. But according to Kuzmarov, that language was often chimerical. The President's much lauded June 4, 2009, address to a massive crowd at Cairo University, for example, held out the promise for a “new beginning” in US relations with the Muslim world. But the President continuously undermined this goal with his policies, including working with the Egyptian military to overthrow a Muslim Brotherhood-led government, supporting Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen and remaining a steadfast ally of Israel, even after its brutal siege of Gaza.
Most controversially, Kuzmarov accuses Obama of triggering a new cold war between Russia and the United States. This argument builds upon those presented in more depth in an earlier co-written book, The Russians Are Coming, Again: The First Cold War as Tragedy, the Second as Farce.
Kuzmarov's willingness to blame Obama for the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia stems in part from seeing Vladimir Putin far more sympathetically than most. He sees the Russian strongman as a nationalist determined to restore Russian prominence and ignores Putin's alleged involvement in the deaths of his political opponents, viewing accusations of such involvement as unsubstantiated.
When Putin is viewed through this lens, it is easier for Kuzmarov to criticise Obama's handling of Russia. The administration's support of the Maidan protests in Ukraine, triggered by the Ukrainian Government's decision to pursue closer relations with Russia, therefore, is depicted not as a stand for democracy and freedom, but as an action that further poisoned relations between Russia and the US. Even worse, it empowered a violent and corrupt Ukrainian Government that makes a mockery of the White House's professed concern for human rights. Kuzmarov directly links this to the annexation of Crimea, arguing that it reflected the will of the Crimean people as the Ukrainian Government grew more corrupt.
Kuzmarov also disputes the standard progressive narrative about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. He argues that Democrats have used this contention to cover their shortcomings and deflect blame. This overreaction by the party and its progressive allies has obscured what Kuzmarov sees as the reality: Obama, not Donald Trump, led the country into another confrontation with Russia that could potentially result in nuclear war.
Even though readers may question Kuzmarov's portrayal of Russia's role in the 2016 elections, his analysis of Putin's rise to power and explanation of the Russian president's policies as a reaction against a decade of post-Cold War US foreign policy rest on solid ground. Simply dismissing Kuzmarov's discussion as hyperbolic or contrarian without interrogating and investigating his claims further would risk skewing our understanding of Obama.
While mostly tough, but fair, Kuzmarov's book could have benefited from an in-depth discussion of several of Obama's proudest foreign policy accomplishments: the nuclear deal with Iran and rapprochement with Cuba.
Regarding the latter, Kuzmarov faults Obama for not acknowledging previous historic crimes committed by the United States and depicts the opening as an effort to promote the privatisation of the island. But this move, which reversed more than a half-century of ineffective American policy, challenges Kuzmarov's hawkish portrayal of Obama. Given the present administration's reversion to a more bellicose posture designed to trigger regime change, Obama's attempt at conciliation represented a positive interlude in US-Cuban relations.
Similarly, Kuzmarov criticises Obama's false narrative of Iran's burgeoning nuclear programme as the gravest threat in the Middle East. As the author reminds his audience, evidence offered by arms experts demonstrates that Iran had halted its programme years earlier. But again, while offering a necessary corrective to overly positive accounts of the deal, Kuzmarov does not place the policy in a broader history of relations between the two countries.
While some of Obama's rhetoric embraced troubling narratives, his policy represented a fresh, decidedly unhawkish corrective to decades of Washington's intransigence. It is in these areas where Kuzmarov's lack of historical context detracts from an overall ambitious and admirable work.
People who revere Obama, and view his presidency as a semblance of normality, will not appreciate Kuzmarov's offering. Many will especially dispute some of his characterisations about the president, including his role as a “frontman” for the military-industrial complex. But dismissing Kuzmarov's book would be a mistake. While his claims can be construed as hyperbolic and open to challenge, the book includes worthy criticism that demonstrates the costs of Obama's “pragmatism”: a more entrenched permanent warfare state, heightened tensions with Russia and potentially a new cold war.
• Brian D'Haeseleer teaches US History at Lyon College and is the author of The Salvadoran Crucible: The Failure of US Counterinsurgency in El Salvador, 1979-1992