President Obama still has unfinished business

Last night, in his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama sought to reassure the American people that the U.S. was on the right course and that he was leaving to his successor a stronger America than when he entered office. On challenges abroad ranging from the North Korea to Syria, Obama expressed confidence that his administration has handled these crises responsibly and he exercised responsible American leadership that avoided the pitfalls of his predecessor.

In his remarks to both chambers of Congress, the President tried to sell to the American public that he has put the U.S. on better footing to address global challenges than the country was on when he entered office. He highlighted his core foreign policy achievements: the Paris climate agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his diplomatic opening with Cuba.

While Obama hailed the success of the Iran nuclear agreement, the President sought in light of events (including a ballistic missile test and the detainment of U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf by Iran) to assure the American public that he would stand firm against Iran’s destructive regional behavior. Seeking to ensure his nuclear deal wouldn’t be derailed by further sanctions, Obama stressed to Congress that the deal was sound and that his administration was committed to enforcing the agreement. So far, the President’s response has been flat footed.

Final year of presidency

The President sought to assure the public (despite low approval rating on his handling of terrorism) that his administration is taking the best steps to combat ISIS. He outlined his plans to close Guantanamo Bay before he leaves office despite the push back he has faced so far from Congress. This rosy rhetoric notwithstanding, the President failed though to deliver a convincing case for how he would substantively address ISIS (a global challenge that he’s consistently misjudged).

The next President will not only have to address growing challenges but also alliances that have been weakened at a time when partnerships with such states are essential to addressing these challenges.

Andrew Bowen

Obama faces wider challenges as well, ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq that his remarks last night either underestimated or glossed over in attempt to paint a positive image of his legacy. These crises could potentially derail his final year priorities and equally overshadow the positive legacy he hopes to leave.

A less secure global position

Obama leaves to his successor a number of global challenges, which he failed to pro-actively address. Despite his optimistic outlook, the U.S. is in a less secure global position than when he took office. His inaction, critically on Syria and Iraq, leaves the U.S. and its regional partners decades of challenges. A direct consequence of this has been Russia’s intervention. As evidenced by recent domestic terrorist incidents, the American homeland isn’t immune to these challenges either. His successor will be forced to weigh the use of committing American military force globally to confront ISIS.

Equally, his naively optimistic assessment about his relations with Iran has already begun to backfire. The Iranian leadership has shown little interest in improving relations with the U.S. and has already tried to test the deal. Iran continues to threaten the security of American allies in the region and its interests (as noted recently by the assault on the Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran). His successor faces a less constrained Iran with fewer tools to respond and the prospects of Iran achieving a nuclear weapon within a decade.

The President’s lack of follow through on his commitment to his allies in the Gulf after Camp David underscores how he leaves his successor deeply strained relations in the region. The next President will not only have to address growing challenges but also alliances that have been weakened at a time when partnerships with such states are essential to addressing these challenges.

While the President tried to optimistically assure the American public that the U.S. is stronger globally due to his leadership, his handling of crises underscore how he is leaving the country in a weaker position globally when he leaves office in 2017. American leadership frankly isn’t what it used to be. It’s this dark legacy that he sought to gloss over in his final State of the Union.

Andrew Bowen, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:46 - GMT 06:46
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