After loading up on a daily dose of Trumpian bile, revisiting President Obama’s speeches, social media posts, and interviews is a breath of fresh air. Of particular resonance is the idea that Obama’s composure, gentle temperament, and oratorical mastery – qualities that President Trump has repeatedly failed to demonstrate – bolstered America’s global standing and ensured the utility of US foreign policy. “Obama was not an international embarrassment to this country… he did not praise our enemies and demean our allies,” the argument has it.
All that is well, but it is crucial to distinguish political potential and rhetoric from the actual ebb and flow of policy. Just because Obama had all the traits one might ask for in the leader of the free world does not mean he was an effective leader of the free world; in fact, if we interpret the “leader of the free world” to mean someone who supports carrying on the burdens of global US leadership, he was anything but.
Obama, much like Trump, supported shrinking the US role on the world stage. As foreign policy pundits Bill Kristol and Tom Donnelly aptly put it, “Trump speaks in the voice of the deplorables, Obama in the voice of the deploring, but the messages are similar: America must learn to step back from its previous global responsibilities.”
Helsinki, Finland. Early afternoon. After days of speculation about how the Trump-Putin meeting might unfold, President Trump emerged out of his one-on-one with the Russian leader to do the unthinkable: absolve Putin and his minions of any allegations of wrongdoing in the 2016 election interference. Although no doubt shocking, the statement was long coming given Trump’s panoply of friendly overtures towards Russia. And as far as amicable gestures are concerned, Trump and Obama are not much different.
In 2009, Obama sent his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to present a red button with the word “reset” to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an effort to improve relations with Russia. Putin had already demonstrated that his administration is not worthy of American trust by fanning separatist flames throughout Europe, hampering NATO’s geopolitical interests in the Baltics, and invading the small country of Georgia, the chief US ally in the Caucasus region.
Why would Obama extend a hand to someone who has been living the idea of undermining America’s international leadership for years? For the same reason Trump favors appeasing and getting along with Putin today. The US should no longer strive to be the uncontested world leader, the Obama-Trump logic has it. If Putin wants to exert Russian impact over his country’s historic sphere of influence, so be it. This explains why Obama refused to provide lethal aid to Ukrainians in their fight against Russia-based insurgency. It also explains why Trump has admitted to questioning if America’s sons should help defend Montenegro, a US partner and the newest NATO member.
Then there is the ever-salient Middle East. As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama campaigned on the promise of withdrawing US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. Following drastic reduction of troops in both countries under his watch–particularly in the case of Iraq, where the war officially concluded in 2011–the region became a playground for such terrorist groups as ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Even as the timing of Trump’s presidency presented a unique opportunity to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes, Trump seems to have all but realized that the only option worse than staying in the Middle East is not staying in the Middle East. As Trump hastens to depart from Syria within the next couple of years, extremist groups and a menage of Russian, Iranian, and Turkish forces are already vying to fill the vacuum left behind by the US. Look no further than the July 2018 meeting of said nations in the Russian city of Sochi to discuss reconstruction of Syria – the US was not deemed relevant enough to have a seat at the table.
Many aspects of Obama and Trump’s take on the US foreign policy are the same. So is my response to each president: a world without America is less safe and peaceful. For America to abandon the role it has played since WWII is to permanently change the course of history for the worse, for Americans and people across the globe alike.