President Obama will be remembered fondly for many things but foreign policy may not be one of them. While supporters of the Obama administration point to the Iran Deal and renewed ties with countries like Myanmar and Cuba as successes, Obama’s complete mishandling of Syria will overshadow such victories. And with a new administration clamoring to undo much of Obama’s positive legacies, his failure will play an important role in how we will remember the Obama years.
In history books, the greatest failure of Obama foreign policy will be remembered as the complete and total inaction concerning the Syrian Civil War. Perhaps, most interestingly, the failure stems from a problem that has plagued the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy since the beginning: Asking how a decision will end rather than asking how such a decision could improve the situation or, at the very least, help the most amount of people. We see that the Obama administration took a historically nuanced and careful approach to most of its policy. President Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, took the country down a disastrous path by in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama could not repeat such costly mistakes.
Evelyn Farkas, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Eurasia, told Vox’s Ezra Klein that the Obama administration has been particularly cautious about its approach to foreign affairs. It seems that while President Obama pushed to improve the lives of most ordinary Americans by pushing an extraordinarily progressive policy agenda, his international outlook was more guarded.
While President Obama worked to further human rights in the U.S., he failed to do the same as the Arab Spring in Syria went from peaceful protests to a bloody, complicated civil war. First the Obama administration attempted to leverage political pressure on the Syrian regime, calling for Bashar Al-Assad to either step down or greatly reform and democratize his country. Then the Obama administration drew its infamous “red line,” where President Obama himself went on national television promising to use force if the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against its own people. Assad did. Obama did nothing.
Next came a wave of refugees asking for asylum in the European Union while the Islamic State advanced across large portions of both Syria and neighboring Iraq. The Obama administration again did nothing to ameliorate the situation in Syria while the Russians took an opportunity to strengthen the Assad regime, partner with Iran, and drastically worsen the humanitarian disaster unfolding in cities such as Aleppo.
President Obama’s caution and drive to understand how his decisions would find solutions to complicated and fraught situations turned out to be his downfall.
It’s 2017 and the Syrian Civil War does not seem to be any closer to resolution while millions of Syrians are either internally displaced or clamoring for a better life in other countries.
Syria will forever haunt the Obama administration, and maybe for good reason.