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What Has the US Leading the World from Behind Achieved?

The last State of the Union address of the 44th US President Barack Hussein Obama was lackluster compared to the global hype that accompanied his election to the White House 7 years ago. Obama today seems crushed, admitting that the US has become more skeptical, divided and begrudged under his tenure, and expressing regret for failing to bring Americans together. However, Obama is not sorry for a lot of things, and is rigidly adamant that his views and policies are the right ones. He is convinced that his historic legacy will have him classed as a visionary who saved the United States from arrogance, condescension and war.
However, his opponents have a different view. They blame him for dwarfing the United States and its global leadership, weakening its clout, and undermining its prestige. Barack Obama's arrogance and conceit has radically helped expand the gap and deepen US divisions, they say.
History will be the judge. But Barack Obama is clearly determined for Iran to be the crown jewel of his legacy, by closing the book on hostility with Tehran and recognizing the legitimacy of the mullah regime and their 36-year-old Iranian revolution. This happened through the nuclear deal, which acknowledged Tehran's "right" to possess nuclear capabilities while postponing its ability to build nuclear weapons by 10 years, in return for lifting the sanctions on Iran and accepting for it to have a leading regional role.
However, Obama's historical legacy is different from the legacy he leaves at the end of his term a year from now. What kind of America and what kind of world has the Democratic president contributed to making? Will Obama leave a more difficult task for his successor than the one he inherited from Republican President George W. Bush? And more broadly, does a one-term or two-term president shape US foreign policy, or is he or she one chain of long-term strategic US policymaking, which usually spans at least two decades?
Those who revere Obama and consider him a good president that saved America cite a series of his supposed achievements to justify their support.
First of all, they say, he has read well the mood of the US public opinion, and met its demands including pulling out from Bush's wars fought in retaliation for the terror attacks of 9/11. Those attacks blindsided the American people, who then associated the terror to Arabs especially Sunni Arabs. However, the majority of Americans soon turned against Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially after it turned out that the evidence for the WMD premise for the latter war had been falsified. Ultimately, Obama took heed, and withdrew from Afghanistan and Iraq, and resisted further military entanglements abroad.
Secondly, Barack Obama's supporters say he protected the US from further major terror attacks, though some reluctantly admit Bush's role in this. They attribute the elimination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to Obama, and cite it in response to accusations of his weakness or cowardice. They say that Obama, like Bush, had adopted the doctrine of "we fight terrorists abroad so we don't have to fight them in American cities."
Thirdly, Obama's supporters are fond of his "leading from behind" doctrine, which they believe has helped keep the US away from involvement in wars. They believe this has shared the burden with others instead of US shoulders bearing it all alone, and by doing so, outsourced the economic, political and military cost to those who are willing. In their view, this has allowed the US to exercise leadership without a cost, a major achievement in their eyes.
Fourthly, Obama's backers say his withdrawals have helped improve the economy, allowing the president to focus on internal issues and tackle unemployment. To them, the Obamacare healthcare scheme is also a success.
Fifthly, the pro-Obama doctrine base is proud of his non-confrontational relationship with China and of his intent to appease nations that have a history of confrontation with the United States. They believe Obama's pivot to Asia away from the Middle East is wise and worthwhile. In their view, it is time to get rid of the historical bonds with the Middle East, particularly as concerns oil, as there is less US need for Middle Eastern oil following the discovery of massive oil reserves in the US and the collapse of oil prices to below $30 a barrel.
Sixthly, the supporters of Obama's policies and doctrine perceive the relationship with Russia only from the standpoint of coordination and consultation on radical disputes or to build semi-alliances like the one in Syria. The supporters are also fond of the decision made by the Obama administration to manage crises with Russia directly, including over Georgia and then Crimea, at a time when Western sanctions have been imposed on Russia. The discourse of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has changed in the era of Barack Obama as well.
Seventh, Obama's supporters agree with his Syria policy, including his backtracking on his redlines regarding chemical weapons and the departure of Bashar al-Assad. They support his categorical rejection of getting involved five years ago when protests in Syria erupted demanding reforms, with the result being that a humanitarian catastrophe was created, killing 300,000 people and displacing 9 million, while turning Syria into a magnet for terrorism.
Eighth, the pro-Obama camp accordingly has no qualms about blessing a Russian-Iranian alliance with the Assad regime and Hezbollah, which Washington still classes as a terrorist group. That is as long as the United States can escape involvement in the Syrian quagmire, regardless of the radical change in regional and international balances of power this has caused, which is in fact desirable by some in this camp.
Ninth, the supporters of Obama's policies have not kept up with what happened after Obama's famous speech in Cairo, which was supposed to inaugurate bold policies including the determination to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue. They did not keep up with the bid to encourage the Turkish model of Islamist democracy in Egypt, when the Muslim Brotherhood was endorsed as the "moderate" alternative after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Instead, they saw all this as an achievement, part of Obama's "leading from behind".
Something similar happened when Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in Libya, although the US was more involved there through US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and US ambassador to the UN at the time Susan Rice. This too was seen as an achievement.
Tenth, the engagement with Cuba is cited as an achievement. Eliminating Ebola is seen as an achievement. And the climate change agreement is an achievement too, claim the supporters of Obama.
On the other hand, those who assign moral, political, and visionary responsibility to Obama rebut the claim the he is a peace advocate whose hands are free of blood. They cite the drone wars and the covert wars that practically fulfilled the desires of the Americans, as long as there were no American bodies being flown back home and scenes of carnage caused by the US. In reality, Obama's policies and drone wars did leave behind scores of victims.
Yet this is not the main argument against Obama among his critics, who believe he is a neo-isolationist president. The first criticism against Obama is that he tore apart harmony in America. While George W. Bush arguably created divisions, Obama deepened them, they say.
Obama's critics say Obama turned the US from a superpower to a paper tiger. It is this, in their view, that has allowed Russia to see the US as "infirm" and weak.
Obama's critics believe his pattern of leading from behind gives a mandate to the likes of Russia and Iran, from Georgia and Syria to Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon, at the expense of US interests and values. They say that the true leader is not someone who reads moods and events well, but someone visionary who protects the exceptional and leading role of the United States of America.
They say the cost of isolationism, the reputation of weakness and decline, and of abandoning allies will be dear for the United States, despite all claims to the otherwise. The critics say economic recovery would have happened regardless of Obamas policies.
Critics say Obama's policies vis-à-vis Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, and China have fueled Sunni and Shiite extremism, allowed militias to take matters into their own hands rather than states, gave Iran the key to expand regionally and challenge the US, and proved the accusations against Washington of abandoning friends and allies, while making Russia a leader in the Middle East in cooperation with Iran and in conflict with Turkey.
The critics say the vengeful culture behind installing Shiite Iran as leader in the Sunni-majority Muslim world will repel Sunni partners, who are necessary in the war with ISIS, al-Qaeda and all terror groups, and will also deepen Sunni-Shiite strife by creating a cycle of resentment and revenge.
The Obama legacy, according to his critics, is the death of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Libya and Syria through half-baked intervention and non-intervention. Refusing to amid this does not exempt the US of moral responsibility and does not befit a superpower that claims to uphold supreme values, in the critics' view. Evading this predicament and pretending that everything is alright amid a huge humanitarian disaster, and remaining silent vis-à-vis starvation, barrel bombs, and war crimes is moral bankruptcy, whatever the justifications.
Obama's critics are opposed to the core of his policy that claims to fight ISIS while there is a de-facto alliance with Iran-backed militias and while Obama is turning a blind eye to Russian strikes on Syrian rebel groups instead of IS. They oppose bowing down to Tehran's dictates and the legitimization of its violation of international resolutions, whether through its ballistic missile program or its overseas military meddling, among other things.
They say the world Obama has left behind is not safe or secure, but is a ticking time bomb.
President Barack Hussein Obama is still in the process of shaping his historic legacy but he has placed it in the hands of others. The coming Iranian elections will be a test. The endgame in Syria will be a test. If ISIS strikes in US cities, this will also undermine Obama's legacy.
So perhaps the proven legacy of the 44th president is that he has seen as greatness as an unnecessary burden for the United States, and decided to "lead from behind" believing this best serves US interests. Was this a decision Obama made, or was it part of long-term US strategic thinking that often carries contradictory elements, all meant to preserve US power?
Only time will tell.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi

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