With the last days of his presidency ebbing away, Barack Obama has given his valedictory address, appropriately in Chicago where it all began with his extraordinary “Yes We Can” speech. Visibly aged from his eight years in office, the 55-year-old Obama’s “Yes We Did” summing up of his administration’s achievements was instructive.
He had taken office when the US economy was in free fall. Some of the most effective measures that restored confidence had been taken urgently by the outgoing administration of George W. Bush in his final weeks. Obama struck with the program and the economy recovered. However, an underestimated factor in the US turnaround was the Obama effect. While a hard core of racist Republicans was spitting feathers that a black man was in the White House, nationwide there was an extraordinary air of optimism engendered by the young and clean-cut new president. This helped Americans humiliated in two foreign wars and pauperized by the machinations of Wall Street to feel good about themselves again. Outside of the US, that optimism was quickly taken too far. The Nobel committee made fools of themselves when they awarded the 2009 Peace Prize to Obama, who was clearly embarrassed by the gesture. Yet Obama himself kindled huge hopes among his country’s friends and allies abroad. The June 2009 “New Beginning” Cairo speech stands as a monument to hope over reality. Washington had the financial, military and diplomatic levers to force Israel into a genuine Palestinian settlement. But the Democrat machine, epitomized by his first Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was already moving with America’s extremely effective Zionist lobby to head off at the pass any real change in US policy toward Israel.
Obama will surely go down as one of the most articulate and charismatic of US presidents. Coming after the language-mangling and simplistic George W. Bush, the contrast could hardly have been greater. But fine words and infinite charm do not necessarily make for effective leadership. Obama quickly proved cautious to the point of indecisiveness. His long contemplation of what to do with America’s failed intervention in Afghanistan exasperated his commanders on the ground. In the end he copied his predecessor’s Iraq “surge” with the fatal difference that he set a date for an end to full-scale US military involvement. That meant that the Taliban and their terrorist allies had only to endure the frustrated anger of renewed US assaults, confident that it was not going to last.
In Chicago on Tuesday, Obama lauded his reopening of links with Cuba and the Iranian nuclear deal. The first was long overdue though he was right to control the pace at which relations with the Castros’ Cuba should be restored. However, his second claimed achievement is anything but. Indeed history seems sure to demonstrate that letting Iran off the sanctions hook that was bringing the Ayatollahs’ regime to its knees was a foreign policy disaster. The Iranians played his administration for a sucker. Endless talks which had Secretary of State John Kerry rushing back and forth in anticipation of a final signing that was then delayed, made the Obama White House look ridiculous. It was masterful negotiating by the Iranians. In the end Obama became transfixed merely on getting a deal, regardless of the small print. Against the urgent advice of America’s regional friends and allies, Obama re-empowered the Tehran regime to meddle dangerously in the Middle East