In the eighth year of a presidency, who is qualified to begin delivering a historical judgment? President Obama and those who serve at his pleasure are naturally biased. His critics are too engaged in the battles of the moment. Journalists and commentators tend to go after darting, shiny, plastic lures of narrative. But events are still too fresh and wriggling for historians to do their mortuary work.
A more promising source of assessment is the opinions of high-level officials who actually participated in recent events. Here, there is already a small library of reluctant but harsh judgments.
The most recent comes from Chuck Hagel. In an interview with Foreign Policy’s Dan De Luce, Obama’s former defense secretary let loose on a White House that micromanaged the Pentagon while “deferring the tough decisions.” Hagel criticizes Obama’s inadequate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; contends that the refusal to enforce the chemical weapon red line in Syria “hurt the credibility of the president’s word”; and complains of getting “the hell beat out of me” for refusing to expedite the release of dangerous Guantanamo Bay detainees.
This might be dismissed as sour grapes from a Republican who believes that the White House was eventually out to “destroy” him — were it not part of a bumper crop of grievances.
Obama’s former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta describes a president who “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.” Panetta is particularly critical of the administration’s eager retreat from Iraq: “I think when we stepped out of Iraq, in many ways, we created this vacuum in which not a lot of attention was paid to what was happening in Iraq, or what was happening in Syria with the extremists who were developing a base of operations there.”
Another former defense secretary, Robert Gates, judged the Obama White House “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen since Richard Nixon.” He consistently found “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president.” When the decision was made in 2010 to surge the number of American troops in Afghanistan, Gates recalled thinking that “the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”
In one way or another, many of these criticisms concern Syria. The historical record will show that Obama’s unanimous national security team — secretary of state, secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, director of the CIA — recommended arming the moderate opposition (the Free Syrian Army) early in Syria’s civil war. A similar group recommended a serious military response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Obama rejected both. The administration was “consistently behind the curve,” says Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford.
Historians will also record the collapse of sovereignty at the heart of the Middle East, creating a vacuum that has attracted, inspired and empowered some of the worst people in the world. These events have produced more than 250,000 Syrian dead, including more than 10,000 children; driven one of every five Syrians from their country; resulted in a refugee crisis that now reaches to Europe and beyond; revealed the United States as an unreliable strategic partner; and allowed Iran and Russia to make a play for greater regional influence.
It might be argued that this is the very best the United States could have done. The most direct response comes from Obama’s former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad,” she argues, “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled.” A decision to “carefully vet, train and equip early on a core group of the developing Free Syrian Army” would, in Clinton’s view, have provided the United States with essential intelligence and given the “credible opposition” a place at the table in eventual peace negotiations.
The rise of the Islamic State, in other words, is a catastrophic result of negligence in Syria.
All these former administration officials also express high regard for Obama’s knowledge, focus and deliberative style. They only judge him dramatically wrong on the largest strategic and humanitarian issue of our time. That may not be where Obama’s historical image ends up; but it is certainly where it begins.