Matters such as these deserve to be front-and-center in the 2016 presidential campaign. None of them will be, disagreements regarding the correlation between the size of a candidate’s hand and the length of his penis taking priority. Even so, by raising such questions, Obama invites Americans to undertake a much-needed reassessment of basic U.S. policy.
As for Obama’s standing in history, many years will pass before we are able to reach considered judgments about his record, whether in domestic or foreign policy. No doubt, in comparison with the expectations that marked his ascent to the presidency, he will be found wanting. But those expectations were absurdly overinflated, as the president himself must surely appreciate. He was never going to bat 1.000.
Even by a more realistic standard, and taking into full account the mess he inherited, Obama’s record contains blemishes that time alone will not wash away. It is gratifying to know that the president appreciates that Libya has become a “shit show,” thanks in considerable part to an ill-advised exercise in regime change in which his administration was complicit. (Would that President Bush and his supporters had the honesty to acknowledge that Iraq is today a shit show as a direct consequence of even greater recklessness. Are they oblivious to the excrement lodged under their own fingernails?)
On the debit side of the register, there’s more. Obama vowed to win the Afghanistan War. He will depart office with fulfillment of that promise nowhere in sight. He vowed to end the Iraq War responsibly. In December 2011, he thought he had. But that conflict has now resumed and the U.S. is back in it. He has normalized assassination by drone and other means, with implications impossible to forecast. As for Syria, let’s just say that his administration has not covered itself with glory.
Obama’s chief foreign-policy accomplishments—the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the climate-change deal, the long-overdue restoration of relations with Cuba—come in the form of promissory notes whose yield, whether for good or ill, will become apparent only with the passage of time.
Above all, there is Iran, to which Goldberg devotes only passing attention. To my mind, Obama’s overall reputation as a statesman is likely to rest not on his fumbling approach to the Syrian Civil War, but on how the Iran nuclear deal plays out.
Yes, Obama surely erred in impulsively drawing his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Syria, only to back down when Bashar al-Assad called his bluff. From start to finish, the entire episode smacks of amateur hour. But the argument that Obama thereby fatally compromised American credibility is surely exaggerated. Recall that in 1956, the United States turned its back on Hungarians who at Washington’s urging had risen up against their communist overlords. In 1961, it abandoned the Cuban “freedom fighters” it had armed, trained, and deposited at the Bay of Pigs in a doomed attempt to mount a counterrevolution. Most egregiously, in 1975, the United States stood by passively as the Republic of Vietnam, on whose behalf 58,000 Americans had died, was wiped off the map. Somehow American credibility managed to survive each of these serial betrayals. It will survive Syria as well.