The Obama Administration Confronts Global Change

By Kenneth Maxwell

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United States President Barack Obama for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” That was the hope. Many others in addition to the Nobel peace prize committee shared this hope.

But what was Obama’s execution of these stated ideals in real time. Did he fulfil these high expectations?

This extraordinary collection of essays covers Barack Obama’s two terms as President of the United States between 2009 and 2017, and his foreign and defense policy. Dr. Robbin Laird, the editor, does not say so. But this book very much demonstrates the dangers of “leading from behind,” which is how Ryan Lizza, one of Obama’s advisors, described his action in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’

Obama’s foreign policy Lizza wrote saw “the necessity of shepherding us through this phase”. The analogy had originated in Nelson Mandela’s comment in his 1994 autobiography that a shepherd stays behind his flock letting the weakest go ahead. Nelson Mandela and F.W De Clerk had won the Nobel peace prize in 1993. In this they had foreshadowed Obama.

The fact that Gaddafi was raped and murdered in a conduit under a highway. And, years after David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy invaded Libya seeking Gaddafi’s “chemical weapons” and had proclaimed victory, Libya remains in chaos, and over twenty year later the intervention there is not adequately explained by the beneficent act of protecting lost sheep.

The analyses here, written at the time, by leading experts, provide a fascinating view of Obama’s foreign policy from the bottom up. None of the contributors begins with a set worldview. They all work from observing the real world. Moving from the particular to the general at times very pithy conclusions. The overall picture is devastating.

From the Middle East, to U.S .relations with Russia, to the lack of reaction to the crossing of the “red line” on the use of chemical weapons by Assad in Syria, to the failure of the sanctions to contain the consolidation of Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and in the Caucasus, to the misreading of China’s long term ambitions, to the messy mechanics of the withdrawal from Iraq and the surges in Afghanistan, to the pivot to the Asia Pacific, to relations with Europe, to the NSA’s surreptitious snooping on would-be friends and allies in Lain America (and Europe), to responding to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the overall picture is not a happy one. The killing of Osama Bin Laden on 2 May 2011 notwithstanding.

As Harald Malmgren writes in November 2009 of Obama’s first foray into the Asia-Pacific after his inauguration: “His White House aides said he viewed China as America’s most vital partner in tackling the globe’s most intractable issues.’ Malmgren concludes: “He will have to figure out how to explain to the leaders of India..and the leader in Berlin..intensifying German cooperation with Russia on all matters regardless of the rest of the European nations…”

But the reader will decide. All these essays are worthy of careful reading. They are dominated by the works of Harald Malmgren and Richard Weitz, and by the editor. But there are many other worthy contributions here. They are spiced by fascinating interviews by Robbin Laird and Second Line of Defense with leading military officers who were charged with the  implementation of Obama’s policies on the ground in Iraq, especially with Lieutenant General James Dubik in February 2010.

And in an article by Vitaly Katzenelson, he noted that the American Vice -President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, had “just joined the board of Ukraine’s  largest natural gas company which will benefit significantly from a destabilized Ukraine.” He calls Ukraine (in 2015) a “zoo, deeply corrupt, and run by Russia-haters and neo-nazis.” The (then) Vice-President, Joe Biden, is also dispatched by Obama endlessly to calm the waters. He visits Iraq 16 times. He is the Obama administration’s “leading point-man in Iraq.”

Harald Malmgren described the G-8 meeting in Paris in 2011 where Germany is strengthening its energy and economic ties to Russia. Where the Visegrad nations of Eastern Europe are warning the NATO alliance about Russian long-term challenges to European security. France is seeking to sell mistral class amphibious ships to Russia. The French-British intervention in Libya quickly runs out of fire power, but Obama is reluctant to provide U.S. backup. Russia is the world’s largest producer of gas and China is the largest importer of energy. It is a symbiosis that then existed in theory at the time these reports were written, but which it is anticipated could bring about a de-facto alliance between these two neighboring mega-nations.

The interview with Mark Lewis, the former chief of the U.S. Air Forces’ chief scientist, provides a fascinating account of his visit to Brazil’s space agency where he found 30 to 40 Chinese engineers conversing in English with their Brazilian counterparts. “The irony was that all their equipment was American made, they had American shaker tables, they had American environmental chambers to test their satellites. But these guys on the floor were working with them were Chinese…and I asked the Brazilians “Well, why aren’t you working with us?” And the answer was, “It’s too difficult.”

Harald Malmgren provides an exquisitely detailed insider view of these developments. And Richard Weitz goes inside the Russian state to see and report on the Russian military attempting to reform. We see then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the international Artic conference in 2010 in the piece by Caroline Mükusch.  Doubtless Prince Albert of Monaco who was there contributed Monte Carlo’s expertise on the Artic to the discussion. Robbin Laid and Ed Timberlake draw our attention to the legacy of Vaclav Havel. Havel wrote: “Both truth and error, both clarity and confusion, words that electrify society with fiction and truthfulness, can match the words that mesmerize, deceive, inflate, create, beguiles.”

The Nobel peace prize committee in 2009 perhaps confused words with future performance. For Obama is if nothing else a great wordsmith. It is the exploration of these contradictions over Obama’s two terms which makes this book such indispensable reading.