Obama should've told Americans: 'No, we can't'

Obama should've told Americans: 'No, we can't'
U.S. President Barack Obama talks to the media about Hurricane Matthew at FEMA Headquarters in Washington, U.S., October 5, 2016.
PHOTO: Reuters

Eight years ago, Mr Barack Obama ascended to the United States presidency on a surge of optimism.

From the grim depths of the War on Terror and the Global Financial Crisis, his slogan "Yes, we can!" expressed rebounding confidence. America could rebuild its economy, its social fabric, its political institutions and its place in the world. His leadership, it seemed, would make all the difference.

It is hard now to recapture that sense of promise and opportunity. Mr Donald Trump's election as Mr Obama's successor shows all too plainly how far Americans' hopes at home have been disappointed since 2008.

And a glance around the world today reveals how far the reality in foreign policy has fallen short of the prospect Mr Obama seemed to offer just eight years ago.

Back then it seemed that America could withdraw from Iraq quickly and cleanly, leaving a country that was stable, prosperous and pro-American.

It seemed that a sustained effort in Afghanistan could create a modern, effective state able permanently to resist the Taleban.

It seemed that Mr Obama's charisma and American ideals channelled through Twitter and Facebook could transform Arab politics, reconcile America to the Arab world, and create the basis for renewed US regional leadership.

Back then it seemed that a simple diplomatic "reset" could restore relations with Moscow and turn Russia into a willing supporter of America's global leadership.

And it seemed that Mr Obama's inclusive brand of international statesmanship could likewise persuade the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear weapons and Chinese to put aside their growing power and shelve their strategic ambitions in Asia in favour of remaining a "responsible stakeholder" in the US-led regional and global order.

Perhaps most tellingly, back then it seemed possible that America would lead the world in abolishing nuclear weapons. Mr Obama's Prague speech conjured a world in which America no longer needed nuclear weapons because it no longer had any serious rivals for global leadership, and its conventional forces were anyway so overwhelmingly powerful that nuclear forces would be unnecessary to meet any challenge.

Compare all this with the world we see today. Iraq's failure and the toxic legacy of the Arab Spring have contributed to the disastrous collapse of key states across the Middle East, with appalling humanitarian costs today and profound long-term strategic consequences on a scale we can as yet hardly comprehend.

In the process, a new and even more virulent and violent strain of anti-Western extremism has been unleashed, and Iran's influence throughout the region has grown.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban has returned as the US-led intervention has wound down. The fragile social, political and economic foundations of an effective state are crumbling, and it is increasingly plain that the immense effort and sacrifice of America and its allies over a decade will prove a sad and costly failure.

Russia, far from being reconciled to taking its place in a US-led world, has emerged as a serious strategic rival.

It has mounted a sustained and effective campaign to rebuild and extend its own spheres of influence on its Western borders and in the Middle East, promoting visions of international order directly at odds with Washington's and starkly undermining US claims to regional and global leadership.

In Asia, North Korea has not relinquished its nuclear weapons, but instead moved swiftly towards a fully operational nuclear force and now seems to be building the capacity to target the US itself.

Obamas host their final State Dinner

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    US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wait for the arrival of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini on the North Portico of the White House before a state dinner in Washington, DC on October 18, 2016.

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    US President the First Lady walk out to welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini on the North Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    US President the First Lady wait to welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini on the North Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    US President the First Lady wait to welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his wife Agnese Landini on the North Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    US President (L) and the First Lady (2R) welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) and his wife Agnese Landini on the Noth Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    US President (L) and the First Lady (2R) welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) and his wife Agnese Landini on the Noth Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    US President and the First Lady welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (2nd-R) and his wife Agnese Landini (L).

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    US President (L) and the First Lady (2R) welcome Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (R) and his wife Agnese Landini on the Noth Portico of the White House before the state dinner.

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    White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest (L) and Natalie Earnest (R) arrive for the State Dinner honouring Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the White House.

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    Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson (L) and Dr Susan DiMarco (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    New York Times photographer Doug Mills and Katherine Mills arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Frank Ocean and Katonya Breaux arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Paul Pelosi (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Catherine Smith (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Haim Saban (R) and Cheryl Saban (L) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    George Stephanopoulos of ABC News (R) and Alexandra Wentworth (L) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Megan Beyer, Executive Director of the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities (L) and Congressman Don Beyer (D-VA) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Chuck Todd of MSNBC (L) and Kristian Todd (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    US Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez photographs his wife Ann Marie Staudenmaier with singer Gwen Stefani during the State Dinner at White House.

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    Tamron Hall of MSNBC (L) and Jonathan Todd Capehart (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Actor John Turturro (R) and Katherine Borowitz (L) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Roberto Benigni (L) and Nicoletta Braschi (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    New York Times reporter Mark Landler (L) and Angela Tung (R) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    Singer and songwriter James Taylor (R) and Kim Taylor (L) arrive for the State Dinner.

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    US President Barack Obama (R) and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi descend a staircase before a portrait of former US president Harry S. Truman prior to the State Dinner.

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    US President Barack Obama (R) and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi arrive for an official photo before the State Dinner.

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    Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi delivers a toast during the State Dinner.

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    Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi toasts US President Barack Obama during the State Dinner.

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    US President Barack Obama and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi hug during an exchange of toasts during a State Dinner.

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    US President Barack Obama speaks during the State Dinner.

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    Singer Gwen Stefani performs during the State Dinner.

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    Singer Gwen Stefani performs during the State Dinner.

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    Singers Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton attend the State Dinner.

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    Singers Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton attend the State Dinner.

And finally, of course, there is China. Mr Obama's early hopes that Beijing could be charmed into accepting America's vision of the Asian regional order did not survive his first bruising encounters with the Chinese leadership in 2009.

His subsequent "Pivot to Asia" was supposed to toughen the message to Beijing, but it proved so halfhearted as to be counter- productive.

Instead of showing Washington's resolve to resist China's challenge and defend its leading position in Asia, Mr Obama's feeble responses to Chinese initiatives and provocations have only underscored how swiftly the distribution of power and influence is shifting China's way.

Overall, it is a sad record of disappointed hopes and declining influence. Naturally one asks who or what is to blame. Many people say it is Mr Obama himself, because he has been too cautious in using America's power.

They argue that a bolder president could have avoided all these disappointments and reasserted US global leadership.

But is that really so? Were there really opportunities to exercise US power that Mr Obama missed? The closer one looks, the less clear it becomes what these missed opportunities were.

No one can credibly explain want precisely the President could have done to stem Syria's slide into chaos, or steer Egypt's popular revolution towards a genuine democracy.

There is no clear evidence that a longer and deeper commitment in Afghanistan would really have succeeded where the immense effort already made had failed.

There were no credible military or diplomatic actions that could have been taken to do more than was already done to contain Russia's intrusions into Ukraine or Syria. And there was no obvious way to resist China's assertive behaviour in the South China Sea without risking a catastrophic conflict.

The problem, then, goes much deeper than Mr Obama and his policies. It stems from a basic mismatch between America's bold objectives and its limited means.

It still seeks to assert its leadership globally and reshape regional affairs around the world, just as it did back in the days before 9/11, when people spoke of America as the sole unipolar world power.

That was never really true, and the evidence of the past eight years shows that it is certainly not true now. America might still be the world's strongest state, but it faces formidable opponents in many of the world's key regions, and it cannot deal with all of them at once, or even any of them singly, without an immense and costly effort.

Obama and Trump meet in the White House

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    Barack Obama and Donald Trump on Thursday put past animosity aside during a 90-minute White House meeting designed to quell fears about the health of the world's pre-eminent democracy.

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    White House staffers stand on the steps of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building as they await the arrival of US President-elect Donald Trump for a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington, DC, November 10, 2016.

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    "Mr President, it was a great honour being with you," Trump said, calling Obama a "very good man." .

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    As protests against the Republican property mogul's shock election rumbled across US cities and world capitals contended with a suddenly uncertain world order, Obama and Trump vowed to carry out a smooth transition of power.

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    After a nasty campaign that culminated in the election of a 70-year-old billionaire who has never held public office and who gained power on a far-right platform, the message was: this is business as usual in a democracy.

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    "It is important for all of us, regardless of party and regardless of political preferences, to now come together, work together, to deal with the many challenges that we face," Obama said.

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    Trump appeared more subdued than usual, and was unusually cautious and deferential in his remarks.

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    The outgoing Democratic president and his successor huddled one-on-one in the Oval Office, for what Obama characterized as an "excellent conversation" and then put on a remarkably civil joint public appearance.

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    After all, Trump championed the so-called "birther movement" challenging that Obama was actually born in the United States - a suggestion laden with deep racial overtones - only dropping the position recently.

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    "Here's a good rule. Don't answer questions when they just start yelling," Obama told Trump.

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    Trump - who previously called Obama the "most ignorant president in our history" - said he looked forward to receiving the president's counsel. Obama - who previously said Trump was a whiner and "uniquely unqualified" to be commander-in-chief - vowed his support.

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    The two men ended the improbable and historic White House encounter with a handshake and refused to take questions, appearing to find common cause in their opinion of the press.

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    He (Obama) told Trump that his administration would "do everything we can to help you succeed, because if you succeed, then the country succeeds."

At times this most thoughtful of presidents showed that he understood this basic mismatch between his country's objectives and its resources, and that is why he was so cautious about committing America to interventions where the costs were high and the outcomes uncertain. He deserves credit for that.

But he never really set out to explain this to the American people. In his major set-piece speeches, he still reassured them that their country had all the power it needed to lead the world, even when his actions showed clearly that he knew how far this was from being true.

Not "Yes, we can" but "No, we can't".

So Mr Obama's failing in foreign policy was not that he did not do more, but that he did not explain to Americans plainly enough why he, and they, could not do more.

That task he leaves to his much less thoughtful and much less eloquent successor.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra.


This article was first published on Dec 27, 2016.
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