Barack Obama’s impending departure from the White House has put many Americans in an elegiac mood. Despite an average approval rating of only 48 percent — the lowest, surprisingly, of our last five presidents — he has always been beloved, if not revered, by the scribbling classes. Just as many prematurely deemed Bush the worst president ever, so many are now ready to enshrine Obama as one of the all-time greats.
Or at least they were until the fall of Aleppo.
Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, Americans have regarded the carnage there as essentially a humanitarian disaster. For Obama, contemplating his legacy, the awful death and destruction that Syria has suffered — the 400,000 deaths, the wholesale wasting of civilian neighborhoods, the wanton use of sarin gas and chlorine gas and barrel bombs, the untold atrocities — has raised the old question of how future generations will judge an American president’s passivity or ineffectuality in the face of mass slaughter.
Perhaps Obama has been hoping for a dispensation, since presidential reputations have never suffered much for such sins of omission. With a few notable exceptions, biographies, textbooks, obituaries, and even public memory have dwelled little on George W. Bush’s inaction in Darfur, Bill Clinton’s floundering over Rwanda, George H.W. Bush’s dithering about Bosnia, Jimmy Carter’s fecklessness in Cambodia, Gerald Ford’s cold realism toward East Timor, or Richard Nixon’s complicity in Bangladesh. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler reportedly said in 1939, predicting that the world’s amnesia about the Turks’ mass killings should allow his armies to proceed in all ruthlessness without fear of judgment. We might think of those words in considering how little attention in our history books is given to our presidents’ very limited roles in standing up to atrocities overseas.
And yet now, as Obama’s presidency winds down, and a ceasefire begins to take effect Syria that Washington played no role in negotiating, it’s becoming clear that the loss of life and the humanitarian crisis represent just the first of many consequences that historians will have to assess as they ask how the United States, under Obama’s leadership, chose to deal, or not to deal, with the Syrian Civil War. And if historians tend to give presidents a pass on failing to arrest slaughter, they are not so generous in evaluating the loss of American influence around the world.
Right now, the apparent loss of that influence seems to loom newly large. The brutal Russian-backed assault in December crushed the Syrian resistance in its main holdout city, Aleppo, calling into question whether the rebel forces will still be able to carry on any insurrection at all. President Bashar al-Assad is gathering with the despots of Russia, Turkey, and Iran to draw up the terms of resolution, pointedly excluding the United States and the United Nations. Vladimir Putin seems high in his saddle.
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For years, Obama has insisted that Syria isn’t of great strategic importance to the United States. But that judgment represents not just a break from decades of geostrategic thinking but a gamble of considerable risk. If Obama is wrong, his miscalculation could have massive implications. Should Russia displace the United States as the region’s preeminent great power, it will affect America’s access to energy, its ability to fight terrorism, its capacity to ensure Israel’s survival, and its relationship with states like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
Equally important are the implications of Obama’s Syria policy on Europe’s immigration crisis. For decades the continent has struggled, with mixed results, to assimilate Muslim arrivals from the Middle East and Africa, many of whom come bearing sharply alien cultural values. But the new waves of Syrian refugees unleashed by the failure to contain the civil war there has now created a crisis of unparalleled magnitude. Countries from Turkey and Hungary to Germany and France have been thrown into turmoil. Cultural tensions escalated, empowering right-wing nationalist parties across the continent and contributing to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. In the United States this past year, Donald Trump amplified his own pandering to anti-Mexican sentiment with new worries about an influx of Syrian refugees — stoking anti-immigrant fears. Around the world, it seems, the rise of noxious populist currents can be traced, at least in part, to the deepening of the immigration crises by the Syrian war.
Yet a third result of Obama’s ineffectuality lay in the rise of the Islamic State, a terrorist organization even more bloody-minded and bent on conquest than the al Qaeda fragments from which it sprang. Obama obviously did not create the Islamic State, contrary to Donald Trump’s absurd campaign-trail slanders. But his administration was laggard in countering its gathering strength. Although the terrorist outfit is on the defensive now, it continues to orchestrate deadly strikes in Europe, and, indirectly, to inspire lone-wolf attacks in the United States, guaranteeing that terrorism will remain a major threat on both continents for years to come.