Over the next 12 days, political commentators will use a lot of ink and even more air time to begin assessing the legacy of President Barack Obama.
Historians will spend years in that pursuit.
But while historians will take a great deal of time and do an extraordinary amount of research in evaluating the good and the bad wrought by Obama during his eight years in office, political commentators will not be as measured or as nuanced.
The problem with trying to assess a president’s legacy before he leaves office is that any such judgments often are clouded by the political persuasion of the individual doing the judging, and the difficulty — or foolhardiness — of trying to gauge the impact of events as they are unfolding.
There is one other aspect that will intrude on efforts to provide some short-term context to Obama’s legacy: race.
It has become de rigueur for supporters of Obama and his policies to label anyone who disagrees with those policies as racist. They do not argue the merits or demerits of those policies; they simply stamp anyone who disagrees with Obama with the scarlet “R” and walk away thinking that unleashing that word trumps (no pun intended) all else.
English writer Samuel Johnson once said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” What Johnson actually meant is that “false” patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
And so it is with charges of racism. False charges of racism are the last refuge of cowards and those who do not have the intellectual ability to engage in a rational discussion of the issues.
Besides, most people who label others as “racist” do not know the true meaning of the word or the difference between racism, prejudice and bigotry.
Be that as it may, my sense about the Obama legacy in the short-term is that political commentators will tread lightly on criticism in the coming weeks, either because of fear of the “R” word or because some of those policies are still in play.
Historians, I believe, will look less kindly at how he handled a number of issues, particularly foreign policy.
Obama seems to have been almost willfully naive about his ability as a so-called “citizen of the world” to rein in dictators and stop bloodshed by playing the nice guy who could talk bad people with bad intentions into being nice.
The worst of these foreign policy debacles, perhaps, is Syria.
In late summer 2013 Obama issued an ultimatum threatening to use military force in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad if Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons against his own people.
Obama later backed down, even after Assad’s forces killed nearly 1,500 people with chemical weapons. Obama retreated from his “red line,” according to some reports because intervention in Syria would have disrupted talks with Iran over its nuclear program, although the administration denied that the two issues were any way linked.
Nevertheless, Obama’s waffling on Syria made him and the U.S. look weak and indecisive. It opened the region to intervention by the Russians, who have taken full advantage of the opportunity and now are major players in the Middle East while the U.S. influence is marginal, at best.
The results of the Iranian nuclear deal also seem a somewhat less-than-stellar effort at diplomacy. While the negotiations were well-intentioned, there is enough uncertainty and too many loose ends to say with any certainty that it makes the region, or the world, any safer.
Farther west, what seemed to be a successful intervention in Libya with the overthrow of strongman Moammar Gadhafi quickly became a U.S. foreign policy nightmare when, in September 2012, four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed by marauding jihadists. Stevens was the first American ambassador to die in the line of duty since Jimmy Carter was in the White House. That the White House tried to blame an anti-Muslim YouTube video for the attack just made the administration look silly.
Crimea and the Ukraine were two more of Obama’s foreign policy follies. Distracted by Syria and other events in the Middle East, Obama let the people of Crimea and the Ukraine fend for themselves against Russian aggression, clearing the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to do what he wanted: Assert himself as the strong man of Europe by annexing large swaths of land.
Lack of any substantive action by Obama in Eastern Europe once again weakened the U.S. in the eyes of the world.
Obama made George W. Bush’s mistakes in Iraq even worse by failing to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would have kept an adequate number of allied forces in Iraq after the war, as we did in Europe and Korea after those wars, to ensure a smooth transition of government and adequate training and equipping of the Iraqi army. The premature withdrawal from Iraq paved the way for what became the Islamic State.
And as for that war against Islamic State? Don’t hold your breath that IS will be defeated or destroyed any time soon. Obama’s policy to deal with this so-called “JV team” has been to nibble at the edges with air strikes that are severely limited in what and where they can bomb.
Just this past week the administration more than doubled the number of U.S. military advisers in Iraq as Iraqi military forces struggle to wrest control of Mosul from IS. This looks suspiciously like the piecemeal support effort that got us sucked into Vietnam more than 50 years ago.
While Obama has dithered, IS has metastasized into a transnational movement that has broader international appeal, is better financed, has longer tentacles and is more dangerous than anything Osama bin Laden could ever have envisioned for al-Qaida.
Now, as he is walking out the door after seven years of waffling and wimpiness on foreign policy, Obama is pandering to those who would write his legacy by trying to act like a tough guy.
He’s sanctioned Russia for allegedly hacking the email account of Hillary Clinton’s top adviser, John Podesta. Note to all: Whoever did the hacking did not hack the election, as the White House and many media outlets would like you to believe; it was Podesta and the Democratic National Committee (and the Republican National Committee) that were hacked.
And, Obama is extending his middle finger to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is a tough guy and let Obama know it on several occasions. Obama’s parting shot essentially abandons the one Middle Eastern state that has some semblance of democracy by failing to veto a United Nations resolution criticizing Israeli settlements on the West Bank.
Both moves leave Donald Trump with two strategic messes not of his making to clean up. Putin apparently has seen through this and dismissed Obama’s weak gesture as inconsequential.
The Israeli decision is another matter. It will either result in Israel being thrown to the wolves that inhabit that neighborhood or it will drive the Israeli government farther right at the risk of becoming a Jewish theocracy instead of a Jewish democracy, at which point no one in that region will have any chance at peace.
If that happens, Obama’s legacy will go down in flames and it will have nothing to do with race.
Ron Martz is Marine Corps veteran (1965-68), journalist and former educator. He lives in Northeast Georgia. His commentary appears monthly on the Viewpoint page.