Americas, Analysis, Featured

Assessing Obama’s Presidency

2016 is US President, Barack Hussain Obama’s final year in office. As per the US Constitution, he is barred from running for a third term. As a result, Obama will now be finalising his legacy. That freezing morning on January 20, 2009, when Obama took his oath, as the US President, he achieved something no other person of his race had ever done in the 232-year history of the United States. Obama become the first black man to take the oath of office and by doing so entered the history books as the 44th President of the United States. But this all a distant memory now. When Obama took office, he promised wholesale change after a decade long war left the US public with battle fatigue. The US had been bled by the Afghan and Iraq wars and Obama would need to oversee the extrication of the US from these.

For all those across the world who were hoping for change, the reality has been proven once again that US Presidents operate in a world of constraints and limitations and in the case of Obama the most remarkable aspect of his foreign policy was his consistency with the policies of former President George W. Bush. This is the only way to describe retaining Bush’s Defence Secretary, Robert Gates and the explanation of running against the Iraq war and then appointing Hilary Clinton arch supporter of the Iraq war as his Secretary of State. By assessing his two terms as US president, it becomes clear his campaign of real change was merely maintaining the status quo all along.

Iraq – During Bush’s term, Obama voted against the Iraq war and this was a centrepiece of his presidential campaign. The centrepiece of his position was that the war was a mistake, and that he would end it. Obama argued that Bush’s policies alienated US allies. He charged Bush with pursuing a unilateral foreign policy, alienating allies by failing to act in concert with them. In doing so, he maintained that the war in Iraq destroyed the international coalition the US needed to execute any war successfully. Obama further argued that Iraq was a distraction and that the major effort should be in Afghanistan.

Obama inherited Bush’s plan that called for coalition forces to help create a viable Iraqi national military and security force that would maintain central government’s authority and Iraq’s territorial cohesion and integrity. In the meantime, the major factions in Iraq would devise a regime in which all factions would participate and be satisfied that their factional interests be protected. While this was going on, the US would systematically reduce its presence in Iraq by 2011, with only non-combat troops remaining.

Obama adopted the Bush administration’s policy of a staged withdrawal linked to political stabilization and the development of Iraqi security forces. While he tweaked the timeline on the withdrawal, the basic strategy remained intact. He even retained Bush’s defence secretary, to oversee the withdrawal.

The security forces the US spent billions on were pushed aside in 2014 when ISIS took over Mosul, then Ramadi, Fallujah and most of the Anbar province. Were it not for the US intervention, again, the ineffective US constructed Bagdad government may very well have fallen. Despite running a campaign on bringing the troops home it is clear to everyone US troops will be in Iraq forever in order to maintain the US created architecture. Despite what Obama always said, his rhetoric gave way to the raw facts that the US will have to maintain a substantial presence if it wants to keep Iraq within its sphere of influence.

Afghanistan – The Bush administration had remained in a defensive posture in the belief that given the forces available, enemy capabilities and the historic record, that was the best that could be done, especially as the Pentagon was almost immediately reoriented and refocused on the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Towards the end of Bush’s administration they began exploring – under the influence of General David Petraeus, who designed the strategy in Iraq the possibility of a political accommodation in Afghanistan.

When Obama took office, the US military and foreign policy establishment had already abandoned the neo-conservative objective of crushing the Taliban and remaking Afghanistan into a functioning democracy. America’s Afghanistan policy fell into the hands of the realists, whose priority was maintaining a tractable and viable client in Kabul, keeping Afghanistan securely inside the US sphere of interest, holding on to a key asset in Central Asia’s “great game” of energy resources and pipeline infrastructure.

Obama’s main foreign policy position was that Bush’s adventure into Iraq had obscured the real threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan, which should be the priority. Obama escalated US military intervention in Afghanistan, increased the number of US troops and expanded their operations and engaged in methodical, cross-border attacks. Obama extended the ‘war against terror’ by systematic, large-scale ground and air attacks on Pakistan, thus escalating the war to include villages.

What Obama did by 2011 was redefine the Afghan theatre and reorient the US presence in the country. Under Obama the US begun its policy of focussing on more long-term and strategic issues rather than focusing on day-to-day issues which were to be outsourced to the Afghan security forces that the US would train as well as using nations such as Iran, India and China to maintain stability. Obama reduced troop levels as combat operations had changed in scope from occupation to security. US personnel who remained will stay in Afghanistan for decades so the US can achieve its long-term aims in the region and create the conditions for this. Obama also began attempts to negotiate with the Taliban so a settlement could be achieved which protected US long-term presence.

Today no progress has been made with the Taliban who continue to regularly challenge the writ of the Kabul central government. In 2015 the Taliban spectacularly took much of Northern Afghanistan, including Kunduz, despite substantial US military training, aid and assistance. Despite Obama proclaiming Afghanistan to be America’s real war, he brought much of the US armed forces back home, but the architecture him and his predecessor built is marred with corruption, incompetence and it never actually defeated the Taliban, who continue to haunt them. This is why well after Obama has left office, his replacement will have to maintain some US military presence to ensure the country doesn’t fall back into Taliban hands.

Pakistan – Obama didn’t just follow Bush in his policy for Pakistan but outshone him by leaps and bounds. As the Taliban made a comeback and made a mockery of the so called US success in the country, the Bush administration had concluded that Pakistan posed the primary obstacle to success in Afghanistan. As long as jihadists could freely infiltrate across the border shared by those two countries, victory in the Afghan war would remain elusive. “We can hunt down and kill extremists as they cross over the border from Pakistan,” Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff remarked, “But until we … eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming.”[1] George W Bush built the case against Pakistan and Obama executed the project, which is officially called the Af-Pak war. Obama publicly declared that his regime will extend the ‘war against terrorism’ by systematic, large-scale ground and air attacks on Pakistan, he escalated the war to include villages, towns and cities deemed sympathetic to the Afghan resistance. Pakistan in fact became the new theatre for US imperial expansion and this was deemed necessary by Obama to win the regional war.

Arab Spring – When the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and spread to America’s stalwart in Egypt, US officials were caught on the back foot and never expected long term dictator Hosni Mubarak’s rule to ever be threatened. Vice President Joe Biden, reiterated at the time: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things.  And he’s been very responsible, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.”[2]  Biden went on to twice question whether or not the tens of thousands of protesters had legitimate complaints. The US quickly changed track when it became clear Mubarak would not survive, and in conjunction with the US funded army, Mubarak was replaced with the army and eventually the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The MB, when office, spent most of their term fighting-off street protests and trying to present an image of moderation, despite making numerous promises to the Egyptian people. The constant domestic instability in Egypt led the US to begin criticizing the Morsi government and eventually describing the military overthrow of the MB government and “restoring democracy.”[3] Obama successfully ensured real change didn’t come to Egypt, which is its bulwark in the region.

Libya – The US establishment jumped at the chance to partake in the overthrow of Gaddafi, who had for decades been a thorn against US interests in the region. Sensing Britain and France would be unable to carry out the military operation themselves, the US deployed its resources to overthrow Gaddafi in order to have a role in Libya post-Gaddafi. The US provided aerial refuelling capability, US Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers began refuelling French and British fighter-bombers. They flew more than 200 missions, providing over 8 million pounds of fuel. The US military did all the heavy lifting to overthrow Gaddafi. But Britain was able to maintain its influence in the country by bringing former Gaddafi officials in a transitional government and then the permanent government. Because the US had no presence in Libya when Gaddafi was in power, through the CIA it began making contacts with militia groups and tribes to gain their loyalty and bring them to power. The hub of this activity was in the US Consulate in Benghazi, but this was eventually burnt to the ground in September 2012, bringing to an end its role in furthering US interests in Libya.

The US then turned to for­mer Major Gen­eral Khal­ifa Hif­tar who has spent the last 20 years in Vir­ginia, USA, where he was trained in guerilla war­fare by the CIA. The Busi­ness Insider reported: “The like­li­hood that Hifter was brought in to be some kind of asset is pretty high. Just as fig­ures like Ahmed Cha­l­abi were cul­ti­vated for a post-Saddam.”[4] Since June 2014 through Hiftar the US has supported the Tabruk government, which is battling the government in Tripoli for the right to rule over the country. But the US continues to struggle in outdoing the UK in Libya, even the intervention of Egypt to bolster Hiftar in 2014 has been unable to change this reality.

Yemen – The US used the war on ter­ror to under­mine Ali Abdul­lah Saleh by accus­ing Yemen of being a hub for Al Qaeda. Ali Abdul­lah Saleh attempted to appease the US with a host of secu­rity guar­an­tees which allowed the US to carry out drone attacks in the coun­try. The Arab Spring upris­ing gave the US the oppor­tu­nity to remove Saleh, who how­ever dug in his heels in the face of demands by his own peo­ple to leave. He even­tu­ally agreed to a tran­si­tion deal, only to be replaced by his own crony – Abd Rab­boh Man­sour Hadi. The US used the dispute of the Houthi people who had been oppressed by the ruling party of Saleh to interfere in the country.  Amer­ica sup­port­ed the Houthi’s expan­sion in the coun­try. Senior US intel­li­gence offi­cial Michael Vick­ers made clear that intel­li­gence had been pro­vided to the Houthis for a long time.[5] But the Houthis overplayed their hand after attempting to take over the whole country and overthrowing the government in Sanaa. The US faces the problem of backing a faction that is unable to sustain its position in the country.

Mali – Under Obama, the US continued in its efforts to cease Africa from Britain and France. In March 2012, one of the poorest countries in the word, Mali was thrown into tur­moil when junior mil­i­tary offi­cers over­threw the civil­ian gov­ern­ment a month before gen­eral elec­tions were to take place. The coup took place with the help of the US, US diplo­mats con­firmed that: “The coup leader Cap­tain Ome­dua Ahme­dou Haia Sanogo had been cho­sen from among elite offi­cers by the U.S. Embassy to receive mil­i­tary train­ing to com­bat ter­ror­ism in the United States.” He added that “Sanogo trav­elled sev­eral times to Amer­ica on spe­cial mis­sions…”[6] The US had only then expanded ties with Mali sign­ing a num­ber of deals, includ­ing agree­ments to train Malian forces through hand pick­ing offi­cers that would travel to the US for training. But as a consequence of the coup by junior offi­cers against their senior offi­cers, secu­rity in the coun­try fell apart and the whole North of Mali was taken over by the Tuaregs and a num­ber of Islamic groups in the region. This was used by France to build coalition to intervene in the country. The 3000 French troops with an assortment African union troops reversed the loss of the north of the country and by December 2013, under French occupation conducted elections, France brought back to power the political elite loyal to it. This foreign policy adventure was a failure on part of the Obama administration as it was unable to sustain the coup.

Russia – When Obama took office in 2009, Russia had reversed many of the gains the US had made in the former Soviet territories. Russia has reversed the colour revolutions in Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and contained Georgia. With the US occupied by Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia was much more confident against the US, especially when its military superiority was being challenged by guerrilla warfare. In Central Asia, under Obama the US continued to use economic aid, military aid and terrorism to gain influence of the rulers in these nations, progress has been slow due to Russia’s historical influence over these countries. The US jumped at the chance to overthrow the pro-Russian Victor Yanukovych, when protests began against his rule in late 2013. Yanukovich was eventually overthrown and a pro-West government replaced him. In return Russia annexed Crimea and moved its military into eastern Ukraine and used ununiformed military personnel further inland in Ukraine to weaken the hold of the central government in Kiev. The US hit back with the US Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry vis­iting Jed­dah to see King Abdul­lah. Straight after this meeting the Saudis raised oil pro­duc­tion and cut its crude price. The effect of this was oil prices plummeted in 2014 which led to an economic crisis in Russia as it needs an oil price of $105 barrel to balance its budget. The struggle for Ukraine continues and to a large degree is now a frozen conflict.

China – After decades of viewing China as a partner, it was the regime of George W Bush that designated China as a competitor rather than a partner. Under Obama’s tenure, this was taken further in 2012. In June of that year the US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, announced at a security conference in Singapore that, “the United States will keep six aircraft carriers in the Asia-Pacific  region and will shift 60% of its warships to the region, over the coming years until 2020.” He explained that the “transfer of the US fleet comes in the context of the implementation of a new US strategy designed to raise the level of US military presence in the Asia-Pacific.”[7] This announcement came a year after Hilary Clinton announced the US was a Pacific power, after decades of focusing in the Atlantic. The US under Obama continued to use North Korea’s nuclear programme to escalate tensions in the region and justify its military presence. Obama reiterated: “Washington has an obligation (to) defend the homeland (and) reassure South Korea and Japan that America’s defence commitments remain firm.”[8] Under Obama the US worked to lead and direct new Asia-Pacific economic organisations in order to enshrine US strategic interests within such institutions. The US worked to shape multilateral regional institutions in the Asia-pacific region, this was to unify some countries against China and to prevent a powerful regional coalition from taking shape that did not involve the US. Today the US maintains key roles in Asian multilateral organisations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). It also continued with its bilateral ties and strengthened them with allies such as Australia and Japan and emerging regional powers such as India and Indonesia. Obama successfully excluded China out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty which is a tariff elimination and preferential market access agreement.

Barack Obama has proven once again the reality of being the US president. The US president in reality has little power and even more indirect limitations. Congress yields immense power in the US and has a say on matters such as the budget and the funding for war, for the last four years Congress has been in the hands of the Republicans. The US president is a transitional position, in the sense that the specific president deals with the same underlying issues, rather than a different set of issues. Successive US presidents have to deal with maintaining US global interests, dealing with both global and regional threats and maintaining the country’s dominant position. Each president will have a certain amount of finance (budget) particular military, CIA as well a host of other tools. How these are used, prioritised and deployed is what changes between presidents, but each president in reality pursues the same strategic aim, they have more control over the tactical rather than the strategic. Whilst Bush and the Neocons pursued regime change as a means to spread US influence around the globe, Obama oversaw the extrication of America’s military and the use of other regional nations in pursuing US interests. But whether Obama or Bush, both agreed that the US should be a global power, play a leading role in the world and ensure, this position was never threatened. Thus, overall, Obama merely continued this trajectory through extricating the US from two wars that dragged on much longer than the US envisaged and he also attempted to spread US influence in places such as Libya, Syria, Yemen and the Far East.


Adnan Khan



[1] Bush’s third war, LA Times, September 2008,

[2] See,

[3] Egypt army ‘restoring democracy’, says John Kerry, BBC Online, 1 August 2013,

[4] See,–4


[6] See,–1

[7] Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense, United States,The US Rebalance Towards the Asia-Pacific,’ The 11th IISS Asia Security Summit, The Shangri-La Dialogue, Singapore, Saturday 02 June 2012, First Plenary Session, retrieved 23 September 2012,

[8] Its North Korea again, New York Times, April 2013,