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Barack Obama, the ruthless statesman

Most Americans still think of Barack Obama as a foreign policy idealist. That is certainly how he presents himself: Just replay the tape of his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

Some argue, he said, "for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history ... the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don't matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force."

The president said he would much rather "work with other nations under the mantle of international norms and principles and law." He prefers "resolving disputes through international law, not the law of force."

Yet that speech ended oddly. Having berated both Russia and Iran for their misdeeds, Obama invited them to work with him to resolve the Syrian civil war. "Realism," he concluded, "dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL."

Wait — realism? Isn't that the hard-nosed — not to say amoral — approach to foreign policy commonly associated with Henry Kissinger?

Having spent much of the last decade writing a life of Kissinger, I no longer think of the former secretary of State as the heartless grandmaster of realpolitik. (That's a caricature.) But after reading countless critiques of his record, not least Christopher Hitchens' influential Trial of Henry Kissinger, I also find myself asking another question: Where are the equivalent critiques of Obama?

Hitchens' case against Kissinger, which is as grandiloquent as it is thinly documented, can be summed up as follows: He was implicated in the killing of civilians through the bombing of Cambodia and North Vietnam. He failed to prevent massacres in Bangladesh and East Timor. He fomented a military coup in Chile. Also on Hitchens' charge sheet: the wiretapping of colleagues.

In history, no two cases are alike. The Cold War is over. The technology of the 2010s is a lot more sophisticated than the technology of the 1970s. Still, this president's record makes one itch to read The Trial of Barack Obama.

Take the administration's enthusiastic use of drones, a key feature of Obama's shift from counter-insurgency to counter-terrorism. According to figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes authorized by the Obama administration have killed 3,570 to 5,763 people in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, of whom 400 to 912 were civilians and at least 82 were children.

And those are just the strikes by unmanned aircraft. The Oct. 3 attack on an Afghan hospital run by Doctors Without Borders is a reminder that U.S. pilots also stand accused of killing civilians, not only in Afghanistan but also in Iraq and Syria. One estimate puts the civilian victims of the U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State at 450.

This is a lawyerly administration, so it insists on the legality of its actions, even when drones kill U.S. citizens. But not everyone is convinced. In the words of Amnesty International, "U.S. drone strike policy appears to allow extrajudicial executions in violation of the right to life, virtually anywhere in the world."

Critics such as Hitchens also hold Kissinger accountable for lives lost as an indirect result of U.S. policy. So what about the number of lives lost as an indirect result of Obama's policy in the Middle East, where he helped topple a dictator in Libya but failed to do so in Syria? The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll of the Syrian war at 330,000, of whom nearly 112,000 have been civilians.

And let's not forget Egypt, where Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has restored a military dictatorship. In 2013, el-Sissi's first year in power, Egyptian courts handed out 464 death sentences. This year former President Mohamed Morsi — democratically elected in 2012 and overthrown 13 months later — was sentenced to hang, along with more than 90 other Muslim Brotherhood members. Yet Obama restored U.S. military aid to Egypt in March. Help me out here: In what way does Gen. El-Sissi differ from Chile's Gen. Pinochet?

As for wiretapping, there really is no contest. Kissinger is said to have bugged 13 government officials and four reporters. Edward Snowden's revelations make it clear that Obama is in a different league. On his watch, the National Security Agency collected not only the metadata of phone calls by 120 million Verizon subscribers but also — thanks to the PRISM surveillance program — the content of email, voice, text and video chats of an unknown number of Americans. Between April 2011 and March 2012, according to one of Snowden's leaks, there were 2,776 breaches of the rules supposedly governing surveillance of citizens and foreigners in the U.S.

There is disenchantment with Obama's foreign policy these days. In recent polls, nearly half of Americans (49.3 percent) disapprove of it, compared with fewer than 38 percent who approve. I suspect, however, that many disapprove for the wrong reasons. The president is widely seen, especially on the right, as weak. In my view, his strategy is flawed, but there is no doubting his ruthlessness when it comes to executing it.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. He is the author, most recently, of Kissinger 1923-1968: The Idealist. He wrote this column for the Los Angeles Times.

Barack Obama, the ruthless statesman 10/20/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2015 7:53pm]
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