Reflections on Obama (1): Caution as courage

By Rafiq Raji, PhD

As the sun sets on Barack Obama’s presidency, questions are already being raised about what he really achieved. Never mind that there might not be another black American president for a very long time to come. Over the course of the year, I hope to reflect on his decisions and what motivated them in the hope that there might be lessons for those of us who seek success in leadership amid vicious opposition. When President Obama took over the American presidency in 2009, the country was in a recession and mired in two messy wars. He leaves office amid a resurgent economy and more manageable military engagements around the World.

At one point during the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party flagbearer, hugged each other warmly in front of the press. It was a most genuine moment of affection. About eight years earlier, Mrs Clinton gave Mr Obama much grief, as they fought for their party’s nomination. To put it bluntly, she barely hid her racism. And it is opined that Bill Clinton, her husband, never got over her defeat by ‘Barack’. The conclusion I came to was that perhaps it finally dawned on her, as she now faced another type of discrimination, sexism in her case, how much hurt she must have inflicted back when they were competitors. Mr Obama’s magnanimity (or sagacity) in not only appointing her to perhaps the most influential appointed office in the American government, but also in allowing her ample room to succeed, may have also taken on a greater significance.

Naturally, John Kerry, another competitor, would be a natural replacement when Mrs Clinton needed to go prepare for what then seemed like a sure – her best chance certainly – shot at the presidency. There is probably a much comprehensive contrast to be made about the Obama-Clinton relationship, especially within the context of one of the most vicious presidential campaigns in US history. That Mr Obama let go of his legendary calm to campaign in the most emotional way (we’ve ever seen of him) for Mrs Clinton makes one wonder whether what motivated him was his angst at Donald Trump, the foul-mouthed Republican Party flagbearer, who was also a stone in his shoe, or empathy for Mrs Clinton, a woman trying to break the highest glass ceiling in the land, or both. I do not want to focus overmuch on that at the moment. I am more interested in those pivotal decisions that shaped his presidency for better and some might say, for worse.

Mr Obama would hardly enjoy a quiet retirement. Efforts are already afoot to unravel his signature health insurance policy, ‘Obamacare’. And by who else but those ardent foes of his: the Republicans – they gave him much grief. But for this inaugural piece, I want to focus on the dynamics behind what is now widely argued to be his biggest foreign policy mis-step. That is, choosing not to order air strikes against Syrian targets after evidence emerged that Bashir Al-Assad, the embattled (and now resurgent) Syrian president, used chemical weapons against his own people. In my view, it was perhaps the most difficult decision of his presidency. And his albatross.

Even a symbolic airstrike in Syria would have been better than the public humiliation of allowing America’s bluff to be called, some argue. And to add insult to injury, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, another Obama foe, would do just that afterwards. As a human being, especially considering how many lives were lost to America’s inaction, Mr Obama must have been enraged. It is a testimony to the strength of his character that he did not seek to regain the initiative. Otherwise, Syria could have been for Mr Obama what Iraq became for George W. Bush, the 43rd American president.

Would President Bush have called off the Iraq war if evidence of chemical weapons (and others of mass destruction) was not found just as he was about to give the order? As it turns out, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did not have chemical weapons. And the jury is still out as to whether Mr Bush knew this before giving the order for attacks to commence. American presidents wield so much power that it takes a man of great courage and respect to carry it lightly. And in Mr Obama’s case, the easy thing would have been to order the Syrian airstrikes. By choosing not to, Mr Obama was well aware he would have to endure taunts of timidity long afterwards. President-elect Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is in part a rebuke of Mr Obama’s caution. Incidentally, what Mr Trump may soon learn is that power is best wielded lightly: it is the perception of power that is more effective. The moment you allow adversaries test your supposed clout overmuch, as Mr Bush did in Iraq, you become vulnerable. True, they might find that indeed you are as powerful as you say. But having put a finger in your nose, they no longer fear you. And after a while, they find weaknesses they can exploit. The Iraq war proved to be humbling for America. There is also a sense I get that Mr Obama did not want the first black American president to leave a mess. And as far as achievements go, Mr Obama turned out to be a pair of safe hands indeed. Some argue otherwise: they say the World is a more dangerous place because of Mr Obama’s caution. Time will tell.

It is probable Mr Obama’s enduring legacy would be in his being, having made nonsense of myths about the limits of black achievement in American society. Even the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to him came before he ever achieved anything of significance. He got the prize before the deed: America didn’t start any new major war, a conventional one at least, under his watch. Addressing the military during their farewell tribute to him, Mr Obama, in that ever sing-song tone of his, put his doctrine succinctly: military action “should be compelled by the needs of our security, not our politics.” After a likely turbulent Trump presidency, Americans may come to see the wisdom in those words.

Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria column (Tuesdays). See link viz.

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