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Minimalist foreign policy


If the US Congress had not imposed a two-term limit on the presidency in 1947 after Franklin D Roosevelt’s record four electoral victories, President Barack Obama would be a safe bet for a third term next November. 

He inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression, and now the US has the healthiest economy of all the major powers, with unemployment back down to 5.5 per cent.

But Obama can’t run for president again, so the time has come for the pundits to start delivering their assessments on the success or failure of his policies. 

Democrats were just as opposed to his heresy as Republicans. Indeed, despite the wreckage of George W Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that Obama administration inherited when it took office in early 2009, his own first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was a classic interventionist. After she left office in 2013, Clinton told Goldberg that “the failure to build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad...left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” But Hillary Clinton actually got her way on Syria.

The real failure of American policy on Syria in 2011 was the tolerance extended to shipments of arms and money that were intended to subvert the faltering non-violent revolution and replace it with an armed revolt.

I suspect that Obama sees Clinton’s Syrian policy, in hindsight, as the greatest mistake of his time in office – but he did partially redeem himself by refusing to bomb Syria during the “poison gas” episode of 2014.

His fundamental insight – and his greatest break with the orthodoxy of the American foreign policy establishment – has been to understand that very little that happens or could happen in the Middle East is a threat to America’s vital interests. Even Israel’s well-being is only a sentimental consideration for the US, not a strategic one, although like all American politicians he is obliged to pretend otherwise.

His foreign policy has been minimalist only with regard to the traditional “strategic” concerns inherited from the Cold War and America’s long, deep and mostly futile engagement with the Middle East.  In his “pivot” to Asia, in re-establishing ties with Cuba, above all on the issue of climate change, he has been an activist in his foreign policy – and a largely successful one. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump will be a patch on him.


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