Is Obama a Hadrian or a Jovian?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A previous reader—the attorney who used to work for a Republican senator—crafted a comprehensive case against Obama’s foreign policy record. This next reader pushes back a bit:

The Republican attorney’s response is indicative of two sets of realities. In one reality, of “facts that are not in dispute,” the Middle East is far less stable and secure, brimming with failed states. In another reality, there’s the reminder that we collectively broke Iraq to set off one domino, while the Arab Spring was not something we could predict or control (let alone have the right to control—as if we get to dictate when world events transpire).

In one reality, our relationship with Israel is in tatters. In another reality, there’s the reminder of an Israeli PM trying to use the American Republican party to scuttle a nuclear arms agreement, the greatest of all exclamation points on how this was not some one-sided dispute (and even after all of the blathering, it isn’t like we've dropped support for Israel—far from it, because relationships are complicated).

In one reality, the Russians have reclaimed “great power.” In another reality, Russia has never looked more like a desperate actor on the world stage.

In one reality, our “credibility” has been destroyed because we were gonna drop bombs, damnit!  In another reality, the chemical weapons in dispute were removed without dropping a single bomb, a President went to Congress about starting a war (shocking!), and for once we walked back from the precipice of starting another war in the Middle East.

In one reality, Iraq was not only a “won war,” but one that was absolutely the right thing to do. In another reality, it’s so obvious that it wasn’t ever “won,” and that the surge was a failure, that it’s silly to even pretend otherwise. It was never a “slam dunk,” the country's ties to al-Qaeda always questionable at best, its links to nuclear technology tenuous.

There’s one reality that hasn’t bothered with the facts since the mid-2000s. Then there’s, y’know, reality.

Another reader, Gbadebo, looks to the distant past:

After reading articles arguing the pros and cons of the foreign policy of Obama, I’m struck by a rather interesting historic parallel (or more accurately, two of them). The first consists of the contrasts between Roman emperor Hadrian and his predecessor Trajan. Trajan was not only embroiled in wars in the Middle East (in modern day Iraq, coincidentally), but he conquered the Persian province of Mesopotamia. He also conquered modern-day Romania and will be forever remembered as the individual who took the Imperium Romanorum to its zenith.

Hadrian, upon his succession, promptly pulled out of Iraq, returned half of Romania to its original rulers, and built his famous wall in northern Britain to mark the northern limit of Rome’s power. The establishment at that time was quite confused, but now, history looks at Hadrian quite fondly, as someone who took necessary steps to protect the Pax Romana.

The second parallel is between Julian the Apostate and his successor Jovian. In brief, Julian mimicked Trajan, won a decisive battle in Iraq and could have restored Roman power there (although logistics caused him to begin a retreat back towards the West). Killed unexpectedly in a skirmish, he was succeeded by Jovian, who immediately employed diplomacy to extricate the army from Iraq and relinquish most of the military gains of his predecessor. Long story short, this didn’t sit well with the army and Jovian was assassinated within six months.

When I look at these two scenarios, separated by one hundred years and further separated from us by two millennia, I wonder, how will Obama be remembered? As a modern-day Hadrian, the preserver of American power and resources? Or as Jovian?

What I realize is that, for good or bad, Obama surely wants to extricate the United States from the Middle East. He’s attempting, in some fashion, to answer the questions “Why are we in the Middle East anyway?” and “What can we, or should, we achieve there?” Perhaps he is reminded of the Byzantine Empire, which fought the Sassinids for two centuries and eventually prevailed. Then it promptly lost half its territory to the Arab Caliphate in less than ten years.

I suppose only time will tell. Either way, it’s clear that Obama is taking his pivot to Asia very seriously.

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