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The real state of the union: Foreign policy

Obama’s promised era of diplomacy has finally arrived, but it may not cement his legacy

January 12, 2016 2:00AM ET

“You take the victories where you can,” President Barack Obama told the website Vox at the outset of last year, discussing his foreign policy. “You make things a little bit better rather than a little bit worse.”

In 2015, the president finally saw some victories. The “new era of American diplomacy” he promised during his first run for the White House finally bore fruit; his diplomatic efforts are making foreign relations a little bit better. But in other ways, circumstances also got a lot worse in 2015 — not necessarily because of things Obama did, but sometimes because of things he didn’t do, namely large-scale military interventions.

2015’s heady mixture of success and failure make it the banner year to assess Obama’s two-pronged foreign policy doctrine that has dominated his two terms in office: a reluctance to become entrenched in new wars except for limited interventions (usually airstrikes) and the dogged pursuit of diplomacy. But which — unwillingness to fully engage military or the readiness to pursue diplomacy — will win out when it comes to Obama’s foreign policy legacy?

First, the diplomacy: Just before ringing last year in, Obama announced a dramatic shift in America’s Cuba policy, ending decades of broken relations with the Communist dictatorship and promising further openings to come between the U.S. and the island nation. It would prove to be a harbinger for the year. Midway through 2015, the Obama administration, along with the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany, inked a nuclear agreement with Iran, addressing what he and his implacable critics had both said was one of the greatest threats to the world, the potential for Iran to acquire the bomb. Then, to round out the year in December, the White House joined other world governments and signed a landmark climate change agreement at a United Nations conference in Paris.

All three are remarkable achievements, requiring staunch focus in the face of opposition from powerful special interests and lobby groups. 

And yet Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments during his penultimate year in office are likely to be overshadowed — not necessarily in importance, but in public perception — as the year that the Syrian civil war finally caught up to the rest of the world, including the U.S. Refugees flooding Europe from the Middle East reached a breaking point and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continued running amok, both in Syria and Iraq and, importantly, in the West.

Obama’s approach to the Syria crisis has followed another of his pre-Oval Office stances: “I'm opposed to dumb wars,” he said in 2002. Though calling for regime change in Syria, Obama took small steps such as arming some small revolutionary factions, but never threw the full strength of the U.S. military behind the effort. Now, his diplomatic inclinations to end the war will, despite continuing proclamations that Bashar al-Assad must go, will likely mean the pursuit of a deal to end the war that might leaves Assad in power.

Though ISIL’s rampaging through 2015, with Obama’s underwhelming response, is likely to dominate the news, the real story of the year is the successes of diplomacy.

Then came ISIL. Last year, Obama began bombing the Islamic State in order to avert a genocide against the Yazidi Kurdish people. That quickly became a coalition campaign of air support to Kurdish and other fighters seeking to reclaim territory from ISIL.

Though suffering attrition of its so-called Caliphate in Syria and Iraq, ISIL lashed out at the West through terrorist attacks. The most spectacular came in Paris, in November, and was linked directly to the group. ISIL also managed to inspire a pair of American Muslims to launch a mass shooting in San Bernardino that killed 16, the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001.

Is a largely unchecked Islamic State to blame for these attacks? It’s impossible to say: Such attacks may still have occurred even after a full-scale invasion aimed at destroying the group. Likewise, earlier moves to push the Assad regime out of power would not have necessarily forestalled the rise of ISIL. These counterfactuals, however, will not stop history from judging Obama harshly.

This much is clear, at least, from looking at America’s allies in the Middle East. And this, perhaps, will be the longest lasting legacy of Obama’s 2015 foreign policy. The frustrations of the Israelis and the Saudis with the Iran deal and the Saudis with Syria reached boiling points this year. Both U.S. allies imagine an ideological U.S. tilt towards Iran while failing to recognize that whatever shift has been made was in service of eliminating the threat of Iranian nukes — which both the Saudis and Israelis viewed as an extraordinary threat — and trying to find a realistic way to end the fighting in Syria.

“We live in a complicated world,” Obama once said. “We’ve got imperfect choices.” Though he was talking about supporting, in the name of national security, states that violate human rights, the Saudis and Israelis would do well to recognize this principle with regard to the Iran deal and in Syria. The hardline anti-Castro Cubans should do the same. Obama himself might take the notion to heart when it comes to looking back over those military interventions he has undertaken — the Libya air war and expanding the so-called global war on terror’s drone campaign.

Obama’s acknowledgement of the complications of foreign policy and the difficulties faced in making it may encapsulate the Obama doctrine as well as any other quote from the president. Though ISIL’s rampaging through 2015, with Obama’s underwhelming response, is likely to dominate the news, the real story of the year is the successes of diplomacy. The nuclear deal with Iran could be the first step toward reordering the relationship with one of the U.S.’ most vociferous — and most dangerous — foes. And, no matter what Washington’s hawks clamor about, climate change is the biggest threat facing the world. Coming to an understanding to curb emissions and reduce the effects of climate change may well be regarded by history as one of the most important and impactful diplomatic agreements of the modern age. The threat from terrorism is important, but terrorists have run amok before. The climate change agreement is unprecedented, marking a momentous step forward. Obama’s victory may help to save the world. 

Ali Gharib is a contributor to The Nation. He has written for The Daily BeastThe Guardian, Foreign PolicyWashington MonthlyColumbia Journalism ReviewHaaretz and Salon.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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