Obama Administration: Erosion of US Primacy?

Misbah Azam, Ph.D.

The new administration in US will take over after the 20th January and the political pundits and experts are in the “wait and see” mode, as all the political science theories, which were widely accepted and were the basis of drawing the future projections about how the coming days would look, were failed after the Donald Trump’s clean and decisive victory in 2016 presidential elections.  However, the debate has initiated regarding the eight years of President Obama’s last eight years internal and foreign policies.  There are so many achievements of Obama administration, both at the internal and external policies, however, looking carefully, some of those policies were only partially successful.  Large number of voters simply voted against Sec. Clinton just because they did not want continuation of those policies.

The Obamacare at one hand was beneficial for large number of people in some States, but overall, premiums were high and are estimated to rise in 31 States by double digits in 2017. Only in two States the premiums would decrease.  Arizona is estimated to see 116% rise in 2017.  According to the US Department of Health Services, the insurers are set to raise the premiums by an average of 22% in 2017, which is approximately triple the percentage increase in 2015 to 2016, when premiums were risen by 7.5% only.

Although, according to some polls, President Obama’s handling of climate change was favored by almost half the Americans, however, critics argue that his administration’s proposal were expensive and President did not do enough, especially, after the U.S. Supreme Court, in February 2016, delivered a major blow to President Obama by putting on hold federal regulations to curb carbon dioxide emission mainly from coal-fired power plants, which, the Obama administration considered the centerpiece of their administration’s strategy to combat climate change. During Obama administration, the unemployment declined steadily and went down to 5.1% compared to Bush administration, when the unemployment was 7.2%, but the critics argue that many people left workforces altogether on President Obama’s watch.

President Obama’s foreign policy is – in some quarters – considered a complete disaster. From Russian invasion of Crimea, the on-going war in Iraq to the burning civil war in Syria and the unchecked growth of ISIS; all are attributed to Obama administration’s hesitant foreign policies. Although in his speeches he tries to convince the people about how, under his administration, America was safe and strong, but, the ground realities are very different, as John Hennah very rightly noted in his piece in Foreign Policy Magazine in January 2016, that history is not going to look particularly kindly on his tenure as America’s commander-in-chief. During the third Presidential debate Sec. Hillary Clinton defended her support for the no-fly zone over Syria.  Although, President Obama and Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had raised concerns about the action which could be cause of the escalation of war and direct conflict with Russia.  Their worries were very genuine, however, if this policy would be adopted by President Obama at very early stage, and he would  have imposed the no-fly zone over Syria, Russia – due to the same concerns – might not be involved so vehemently, which would give US upper hand on Syrian crisis.

It is true that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) started taking root after the Bush administration’s disastrous Iraq policy, however, it is also true that Obama administration has to bear some responsibility for the strengthening of ISIS especially in eastern Syria and now in Afghanistan.  The declassified report of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) dated August 12, 2012 was circulated among various agencies including the CENTCOM, CIA and FBI.  It states,

“The West, Gulf countries and Turkey [which] support the [Syrian] opposition… There is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime”.

The document clearly shows that US intelligence agencies predicted the rise of ISIS but instead of declaring the group as US enemy and the threat to its national security, the group was envisaged as a “US strategic asset” in the report.

The 30,000 troop serge in 2009 in Afghanistan by President Obama enjoyed widespread support. However, without any reference to the ground reality, he also announced the pull-out in 18 months.  That announcement gave the signal to insurgents in Afghanistan that they had no need to negotiate the settlements with the legitimate Afghan government and all they need to do was to stay dug in their positions and make their moves after the US pulls out. It also encouraged ISIS to slowly influence the insurgency and take the control from Taliban and begin their terror designs.  Now, since the ISIS has already spread its narrative successfully in Afghanistan and partly in Pakistan, and the Taliban and Al-Qaida supporters and some of their operatives are joining the ISIS, both Taliban and Al-Qaida are concerned about losing their influence and get replaced by ISIS.  At the same time powers like Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan are also concerned about the uncontrolled growth of ISIS.  Russia, Iran and China strongly believe in the conspiracy theory that the ISIS is tolerated by the West so that it would destabilize their countries.  With all those ground realities, the interests of old allies and old adversaries in the region are converging and a new regional alliance is forming in the area which exclude the US and its Western allies.  The pro-West approach of Afghan government which was formed in 2014 is also a matter of concern for the regional powers.

The 2012 regional strategy of President Obama’s administration – The Pivot to East Asia — predominantly emphasizes the “strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, China inclusive; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights”. However, China sees the Pivot to East Asia strategy as a part of America’s policy to contain and confine the military power and economic expansion of China with the help of India, Japan, Australia and the coastal states in the South and East China Sea. In 2013, around 22,000 American personnel with 16 warships, and up to 10,000 Australian personnel and 11 warships, conducted military drills in northern Australia and the Coral Sea for the outbreak of a war with China. According to media reports, actually, the main goal of the US military’s “Air-Sea Battle” doctrine is the “offensive” deployment of American and other allied forces in the region to blockade sea lanes, such as the Straits of Malacca, the Sunda Straits and Lombok Straits, to cut off China’s access to oil, gas and other raw materials from the Middle East and Africa. The insiders of China’s ruling circles believe that United States needs a militarily, economically and socially weak and divided China so that US can continue its martial hegemony in Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa. Obama administration considers India a very important part of such strategy. To woo India, Obama administration totally rebuffed its old ally, Pakistan, and defined its relations with Pakistan on the basis of what India’s Hindu nationalist government believes and what Afghanistan government which, according to Pramod Kumar, “eats out of India’s hands” says about Pakistan.

Former CIA station chief in Islamabad, Robert L. Grenier, in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 terror attacks  noted, “Long-term US strategic interests in Pakistan in fact dwarf those in Afghanistan. Arguably, we have allowed the tail to wag the dog for too long, and it is time to reorient our policy,” he said. “As the US navigates this shift it will have to accept that in many areas, Pakistan and the US will simply have to agree to disagree.” He said, “Pakistan was now engaged in a long, complicated, twilight struggle against extremism, both internally and across its borders. Given Pakistan’s importance in global counterterrorism policy, its status as a nuclear-armed state, its troubled relations with India, and its location at the heart of a highly important but politically unstable region of the world, the US has a considerable stake in the outcome of this struggle, and would be well advised to maintain a constructive engagement with Pakistan at multiple levels,” said the CIA expert.

The 1971 incident was in some way unique in the contemporary history where a country assisted and conspired to break up its neighboring country just because of its security paranoia. The world — especially the US — must understand, after 1971 breakup, the Pakistani security establishment is paranoid and as long as India keeps pursuing its “isolate Pakistan or breakup Pakistan” policies, and the US will turn its blind eyes just to get an access to India’s “huge markets” and its assistance in slowing China down, no matter how much the Pakistani civilian authority tries to convince them or how much “adventurism” the Jihadist organizations are engaged in, both inside and outside Pakistan, the Pakistan security establishment – wrongly of course — would not sever its close relations with Jihadists, and any Mumbai-like action by the Jihadist would take the region to total annihilation by the nuclear exchange.  Mr. Grenier pointed to this reality by saying, “Pakistan has clung stubbornly to its own perceptions of national interest, and has generally refused to compromise those perceived interests, even when their pursuit has seemed irrational or self-defeating to US eyes.”

President Obama’s unbalanced foreign policy pushed Pakistan away and be a part of new alliance.  In April 2015, on the eve of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Islamabad, which was largely focused on broadening deep economic relations with Pakistan, the New York Times highlighted the high profile visit of Chinese leader to Pakistan and commented on the future of US-Pakistan relations.  Times noted, “…laden with tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure and energy assistance on a scale the United States has never offered in the past decade of a close relationship, a gesture likely to confirm the decline of American influence in that nation”.  Times also focused on the fact that “significant amount of assistance, including a port facility at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, and rails and roads leading from the port across Baluchistan Province and into western China, will be in areas close to the tribal areas where the militant groups operate.  The route from Gwadar to Kashgar, in Xinjiang — a project officially called the Economic Corridor — also serves as a shortcut for the shipment of goods from Europe to China, avoiding the Strait of Malacca farther east”.

There are some successes in Foreign policy by Obama administration like Iran deal; eliminating Osama Bin Laden, although some analysts believe that it was done with the secret assistance of Pakistan intelligence; eliminating Al-Qaida preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in Yemen although it was very much expected that it would create a controversy even in President Obama’s liberal support base. However, President Obama had an opportunity to clear up some mess created by the Bush administration’s imperial policies. He tried but unfortunately he was unable to take necessary actions on time and also, the fellow Republicans who controlled the House and large part of Senate put hurdles in his way after 2008 elections. President Obama pledged to have a balanced policy with India-Pakistan and promised to work with both countries to resolve outstanding issues like Kashmir.  But when India refused, he backed off from his promise. The imbalance in his foreign policy severely hurt US interest all over the world and gave the opportunity to Russia to take control of the situation.  President Obama might have rebuffed Pakistan time and again to woo India but, in the future, India cannot stand away if there is any regional alliance with China and Russia formed in South Asia against the growing power of ISIS.

On the eve of 20th January, 2017, knowing President Trump’s temperaments and his unpredictable behavior, the political pundits are not very enthusiastic in predicting the future but they hope that US will regain its position and credibility internationally which was severely eroded during Bush and then Obama administrations. With a “non-political” President in the White House, things may be different and who knows those may be better than before.


  • Nuree

    Obama, by doing nothing to stop ISIS, helped them grow.

  • hmmmm

  • Nuree

    As a solidarity with feminists, liberals and all others protesting against Trump, I have decided to not to put butter on my aloo ka parantha for one week.

  • Nuree

    Muslim leader in America: “Islam is not here to Integrate. Islam is here to Dominate”