Originally Published 2016-04-30 07:35:00 Published on Apr 30, 2016
Judging Obama legacy

Henry Kissinger, during his path-breaking visit to China in 1971, asked Zhou En-Lai what he thought of the French Revolution. “It’s too early to come to a judgement,” said the Chinese prime minister. That was the Chinese way of not letting the US know their mind even on a major event in history. US President Barack Obama is laying down office in a few months. One doesn’t have to wait for 200 years to judge what kind of legacy Obama is leaving behind. These are days of instant opinions. Obama did make history, if by nothing else then by being the first African-American to be elected president of the United States. No other African-American had received so emotional an adulation earlier than Martin Luther King Jr, who never sought office.

Martin Luther King didn’t survive for long and became a victim of the racial prejudice and hatred he was fighting. Even Obama was elected with as many as 44 per cent Americans voting against him, mostly for no other reason than that he had an African-American lineage. Obama’s reaching the White House marked a quantum jump for African-Americans.

Obama, however, may have rightly thought he would be judged by history not by the fact that he was the first African-American president but by whether he could do something substantial. Eight years later, his legacy is substantial, considering that the situation he inherited from his predecessor was forbidding both at home and abroad.

While on the domestic front, what Obama has accomplished is fairly impressive, abroad, his record is mixed, although he did make a studied effort to emerge as a forward-looking world statesman. When Obama took office, the US was heading towards what could have been a depression. It was losing millions of jobs every month. The American economy was collapsing as manufacturing was in crisis, particularly the automobile industry. Stabilising the economy was Obama’s first task.

The unemployment rate has gone down. More jobs are being created every month. The annual growth rate is going up. The automobile industry has been revived. People’s confidence, as of Wall Street, has been restored.

Obama, however, will be remembered most for his healthcare reform, with 18 million Americans who couldn’t afford family healthcare becoming beneficiaries. He did manage to tackle the insurance lobby, which had acquired enough clout at Capitol Hill to frustrate pro-poor health policies. While Obama’s policies at home have had considerable success, his record in pushing American foreign policy aims has been only partially successful. Fairly early in the beginning of his innings, he sent surprise Nauroz greetings to Iranian leaders. Years later, he followed this with a major initiative for weaning Iran away from the nuclear track. Involving other powers, and patient negotiations with Iran, he brought a turnaround and succeeded in convincing Iranian leaders to give up the dream of becoming a nuclear power. This may perhaps be his best foreign policy achievement.

Obama’s latest worry is what if the nuclear weapons of states like Pakistan fall into the hands of terrorists. Severe pressure was needed to be brought on Pakistan, where jihadi groups have been openly declaring their intention to steal nuclear weapons. Obama recently called a conference of several countries, including India, to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. If it takes place, this can play havoc with the world, particularly South Asia.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif cancelled his plans to attend the conference; possibly he didn’t want to face isolation in Washington. One area in which Obama has failed is the growing terrorism threatening the world order. His administration succeeded in tracing Osama bin Laden, but terrorist groups are strong enough to strike Paris and Brussels. India is a favourite target of terror groups supported by Pakistan.

Relations between India and the US have improved during the Obama years, but Washington has not been able to convince India about its decision to provide Pakistan with the latest F-16s and other military hardware, at a time when it is reluctant to deal with terror groups freely roaming around in the country and threatening India and the subcontinental peace. By now, Obama must have come to know that there are no good terrorists anywhere.

But Obama’s worst blunder has been Syria, where his policy led to the rise of theIslamic State (IS). In the long run, the IS may be unviable, but it is carrying on with its killing missions, mocking the world’s inability to tackle it.

In Afghanistan, Obama’s policy, based on the “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” presumption, has not yet led to reconciliation. The result is acute uncertainty in Afghanistan and trouble in the Af-Pak region.

Obama kept his engagement with Beijing alive, despite China’s growing naval presence on the high seas and its assertive attitude in the South China Sea. However, he didn’t know how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukraine adventure. Putin has been smarter than Obama and has got away with the annexation of the Crimea.

No president has accomplished all that he wanted to. Obama is certainly leaving his country somewhat better than he found it. At home, he has tried to be a reconciler in politics and society. Abroad, he wanted to resolve many conflicts, but these were too complex for him. Nevertheless, he can retire with the satisfaction that he did his best in a world difficult to handle even by the most powerful nation and its leader.

This commentary originally appeared in The Indian Express.

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