A Debate on the Foreign Policy Legacy of President Obama

Motion: President Obama’s foreign policy positions and achievements, specifically with a focus on environmental policy in foreign affairs, trade negotiations with foreign countries, and US military intervention in the Middle East, should be lauded and built upon by the Biden administration.   

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Hindsight is 2020, or should I say 2021? Often, when reflecting on present circumstances and “how we got here” it is simpler to look directly at the most recent past. As a Democrat myself, my instinct is to lay the blame of the current world on the footsteps of our last President. And while I do personally feel his ripple is one of serious and abominable consequence, it is not wrong to look at his predecessor’s legacy as well in order to understand the current world as well as to learn from past mistakes. 

 

With that in mind, the following debate centered on the following motion:

President Obama’s foreign policy positions and achievements, specifically with a focus on environmental policy in foreign affairs, trade negotiations with foreign countries, and US military intervention in the Middle East, should be lauded and built upon by the Biden administration.   

 

The two debaters for the event were both returning participants to Citizen Jane Blog. Andy Laub argued on the “for” side Andy Laub, and Daniel Mollenkamp on the “against”.


Andy Laub holds a Master's in International Relations from NYU. A self described liberal internationalist, Andy is a veteran of the democratic campaign world and a former Congressional aid. He formerly was the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy a former analyst on North Korea and is currently a Next Gen Fellow with Foreign Policy for America.

Daniel Thomas Mollenkamp is a journalist with experience on the ground in Africa, Europe, and the US. His work has appeared in outlets including Christian Science Monitor, Investopedia, Diplomatic Courier, and The Well News. He also runs The Stringer newsletter (which is re-posted on this blog weekly).

The structure of the debate (which underwent changes due to the time constraints of all involved) included opening remarks; a segment on environmental policy followed by questions from the moderator (me); a combined segment on trade negotiations with foreign countries and military intervention in the Middle East; and concluding remarks. 

 

This was an extremely nuanced look at a previous administration that delved into some hard questions. I commend the debaters for their thoughtful responses and invite any reader to comment with their input! 

 

I. Opening 

 

Andy: 

 

One thing President Barack Obama seldomly gets enough credit for is the job he did on environmental policy first and foremost by leading with Paris Climate Change Accords, that brings 195 nations together, working with major countries like China and India to set the global bar for greenhouse gas emissions. Also under the Obama administration, power plants and cars were efficiently regulated to curb the pollution they cause. President Obama also invested in clean and alternative energy such as wind and solar power and protected our natural and wildlife by not allowing drilling offshore, which was savagely destroyed by the Trump Administration.

 

President Obama was both pragmatic and progressive when it came to trade. He established the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) with twelve other countries as part of his rebalancing effort to Asia. While the TPP may be controversial at home between hard left and hard right politicians, it’s much less controversial in the actual foreign policy, trade and economic communities. The TPP is the most progressive trade regime negotiated, because it helps contain China and harmonizes global intellectual property standards. It also raised the economic and labor standards of countries such as Vietnam, it would be beneficial for every country's economy involved in it and would reaffirm connections with our allies. 

 

Intervention in the Middle East is hard to comeby for any administration, President Obama ran on his anti war record. Yet with changes quickly happening particularly related to the Arab Spring things got very complicated real fast. President Obama found himself walking a tightrope between his anti war philosophy but also to what point does it cross red line where the US needs to stand up for human rights and for our allies? In Egypt he was right to call for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak a dictator whose military was open firing in Tahrir square against civilians. In Iran a place I have been and hold close to my heart the nuclear negotiations and diplomacy that resulted in the JCPOA that put limits on its nuclear program by all accounts from disarmament experts was the right thing to do, only those close to the Israel lobby in Washington disagreed. The Obama administration's intervention in Libya was controversial, the ouster of longtime dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi was absolutely the right thing and Obama took the right approach in going at it multilaterally through a UN resolution and having NATO carry out the bombings. It was the aftermath in which we needed more of a presence to help Libya stabilize, however it is encouraging that they have had two elections. Syria was perhaps the most difficult spot the Obama administrations faced with only bad options. While President Obama dithered on a limited strike after Assad’s use of chemical weapons we saw President Trump take such action that made little difference. And the Obama administration pushed diplomatically with Russia but their differences were too far apart. It is my belief had President Obama potentially acted earlier in Syria as the Arab Spring was rising we could have seen a more favorable result. 

 

Daniel:

 

Thank you for hosting this debate, Danielle. 

 

To anyone who comes across this I want to suggest that this debate is important not only for understanding and categorizing the recent past with the knowledge of how the ensuing Trump administration, which was in many ways a reaction to Obama's, moved the country. This is an important enough endeavor, for sure, but one which is backwards facing. But the debate is also vital for moving into the Biden administration, which in many ways has evolved from Obama's, looking forward. 

 

I want to suggest that despite the praise heaped on Obama at the time for being statesman-like, nimble, and diplomatic, in many ways the very opposite of the fumbling and bumbling and awful Trump administration, that Obama's terms in office were a failure. They were a failure, in particular, despite some credible achievements, on foreign policy. 

 

During his two terms we saw the continuation of imperial follies, extended and not mitigated by Obama himself who not only failed to keep his promise to unwind military incursions into the Middle East, as well as to shutter the infamous Guantanamo Bay, but who doubled down on many of its most morally indefensible, darkly foreboding aspects, including increasing troops to Afghanistan, opening military trials at Guantanamo rather than closing it, and doubling down on drone strikes, which have killed untold amounts of civilians. He did this while assuming war powers, a clear refusal to break with a dangerous trend in American presidents, which connects the foreign policy of Bush, Obama, and Trump. This trend is something that has long been feared in American politics. 

 

Indeed, Abraham Lincoln himself once warned ominously of this power, embraced by conservatives and the Obama administration in this century, saying in a 1848 letter to his law partner: 

 

“Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure. Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,--I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

 

More devastatingly, despite the supposedly rational calculus which is said to justify these actions by his "idealistic" supporters, it is pretty clear that Obama's foreign policy lacked a concrete, principled vision. Thus, his incursion into Libya, contentious as it already was and inspired by sheer political calculations as it seemed, is met by his failure to act decisively in Syria. What is the principle that covers these decisions? I say it is not a coherent one. 

 

The full consequence of this has been to allow the president, through accretion, to have picked up the power to murder citizens, of America and of the world, on suspicion alone, flattening the concept of rule of law. The president did this while throwing everything it could at whistle-blowers, like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who were attempting to reveal to the world the suspect methods and motives of the American surveillance regime upon which these suspicions-- which, I remind you, have life or death consequences-- were founded. So, “be silent” or face the full powers of the administration.

 

Since this is already dragging on, I will circle back to the other points later and will only impressionistically address them now. 

 

In the face of many questions, we merely have an absence of solid achievements, embarrassing and damaging omissions rather than active harms. Obama has had no meaningful or lasting achievements on the environment. In fact, the record will show that he did, despite numerous promises, cave to off-shore drilling interests. For instance, Keystone XL. On trade, he failed to secure China as a partner to the extent he might have done. He also failed to adequately express the US view of Brexit, though this emerged at the end of his tenure. However, this is not to say that I think everything Obama did was bad. To put this into perspective, I think he did show great nimbleness in Iran, and I’ll perhaps have some flattering things to say about the TPP. The standard here is whether or not these achievements should, or in some cases even can, be built upon by the Biden administration. 

 

I suspect that if you put in the time to see this debate through to the end, you'll come a little closer to my side: despite being a mixed presidency overall, the Obama years were a failure on issues of foreign policy. And they are years that we'd rather move forward from than back to. Thanks.


 

II.

Submotion: President Obama should be lauded for his environmental policy, in relation to foreign affairs. 
 

Daniel:

 

Quick correction before I move on: when I said Keystone XL in my opening I meant to say the Gulf of Mexico. 

 

Now, on to the environment. One hesitation I have about the Biden presidency is that liberals will now use the stinking memory of Trump's carnivalesque shitshow to let Biden off the hook in every conceivable way. This is why it's important, I think, to offer a reminder that the fragrance of Obama's legacy wasn't so sweet as we may now recall, even if it wasn't as fetid as Trump's. I will try not to overstate my case as I think Obama's legacy on the environment certainly outpaces the presidents that flank him (if that wasn’t already clear). But, then, the point is that that wasn't enough to avert the crisis we still face (nor, indeed, will it be should the Biden administration follow his lead). It is the second part of the motion that I emphasize here.

 

On the environment, specifically, there were some highlights, as friends of mine recently reminded me, such as the regulation of carbon emissions as pollutants and clean energy, but there were a lot of painful missed opportunities as well.

 

In the painfully elapsed possibilities list: 

  • Relying so heavily on executive orders placed the environmental gains that were made in peril. This was pointed out previous to Trump taking office and so is not merely a question of hindsight;

  • The reason for the need to rush through climate legislation via executive orders was due, in part, to the fact that Obama refused to act early or decisively on the matter, only getting to it in his second term. Thus, he had a chance to act early and decisively here-- for instance, when there was a Democratic majority in Congress during his first two years in office-- but didn't;

  • This reluctance also flies in the face of his campaign promises which had promised a "new chapter" in climate; 

  • For instance: He failed to give support to a cap and trade bill that passed the House in 2009, showing his reluctance to stick his neck out for these things. Seemingly sympathetic lobbyists later connected its failure explicitly to Obama's inaction;

  • Counter-intuitively, I want to argue that these things, and things like Keystone XL, reveal the utter weakness of Obama's approach to climate. Despite good intentions, speaking of Keystone which I think of as a serious and sustained effort for him, and multiple vetoes, the project passed. Obama's opposition was toothless. This is part of the good, but simply not effective enough category. For an existential threat this is simply not enough, especially when he passed on a chance to act effectively in his first term;

  • This failure to act early opened up even some of the greatest achievements to undoing: for all the trumpeting of the Paris Climate Accords, for instance, Trump undid them rather quickly, leaving an absence of accomplishment rather than a bad thing here.  

 

On his own standard, then, of a "new chapter," it was not the rose-scented tenure many people now pretend. Nor is the memory as fragrant as Andy suggests in his opening. Here are some items for the shit column:

 

This, I would humbly suggest, isn’t a glittering legacy. While his presidency was one of a sort of moderate, technocratic idealism, it was an idealism which he failed to realize. It is, in other words, the mixed legacy of an idealist who failed to achieve his goals. 

I’m prepared to defend that. Bring it on. 

 

Andy:

 

 Thank you again Danielle for hosting and thank you Daniel for your opening comments. At the outset it appears Mr. Mollenkemp is taking two different positions that Obama was a failure but he had some good achievements so hopefully we will have some clarity on that front. Starting on the climate front, what we will see in just the first few hours of the Biden administration are rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and the incoming President has stated his intention to cancel the license of Keystone XL pipeline which I support as did President Obama, which was important Mr. Mollenkemp highlighted this in his opening remarks. Those are some very important initiatives that the Trump administration reversed, we will all be better off with cleaner air and no drilling offshore to disturb wildlife that we perhaps to for granted how badly our environment was hurt during the Trump administration. 

 

I also wanted touch on Brexit as Mr. Mollenkemp touched on. President Obama was criticized by Republicans and Trump for campaigning for the UK to remain within the European Union. The UK narrowly decided to leave that boosted Trump like populists. I think that the UK has already and will come to for a long time regret this decision, given that as part of the deal with the European Union they’re paying more to Europe than I ever were while inside the EU. The UK will also be less of a foreign policy priority for the United States as I believe the Biden administration should prioritize relations with the EU. In fact Joe Biden’s election caused UK Prime Minister a proponent of Brexit to change his calculation and strike a deal with the EU instead of crashing out which would have hemorrhaged the British economy. Because economies so linked, it was important for President Obama and now for the Prime Minister to advocate and make those deals. 

 

I also want to touch on Daniel’s comments regarding Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. It may surprise some but I actually supported Edward Snowden’s release of the incredible overreach of our intelligence agencies that violate the constitution’s guaranteed privacy of Americans. While this happened primarily under the Bush administration it was something that unfortunately that continued too much under the Obama administration. But I will praise President Obama for reforming the system upon the leaks, we know we couldn’t expect the same out of Trump. However, I disagree with the association between Snowden and Assange, Assange is a criminal wanted for multiple crimes in different countries from rape to stealing state secrets. Instead of using his agenda to reform the system, Mr. Assange has participated in global criminal and illicit activities to undermine his opponents such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and promote himself. 

 

I want to conclude with this, while I am a supporter of both Presidents Obama and Biden. Biden’s term will not be a third term for Obama because the world has so fundamentally shifted over the last four years it’s going to take a different approach. Although we see a lot of familiar faces they understand the challenges we seek at home and abroad to repair our democracy. 

 

I look forward to continuing this debate.   

 

Questions from Moderator:
 

  1. In Daniel’s response, he mentioned that Obama’s legacy was “the mixed legacy of an idealist who failed to achieve his goals.” President-elect Biden has promised an even more ambitious climate policy. Is this idealism misplaced? What do you foresee as actually achievable in the Biden presidency? 

More specifically, you both discussed the Paris Climate Accord. President-elect Biden has promised to rejoin it. However, as discussed by the A. J. Meyer Professor of Energy and Economic Development at the Harvard Kennedy School,Robert Stavins,  in the article The Biden Administration and International Climate Change Policy and Action 

 

“As I said at the outset, the easy part will be submitting the necessary paperwork on Jan. 20 to rejoin the Paris Agreement, but the hard part will be coming up with the new U.S. NDC—a quantitative statement of how and by how much U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced over time. This will be challenging because the new NDC will need to be sufficiently ambitious to satisfy (at least to some degree) both domestic green groups and some of the key countries of the international community (despite the likelihood that Biden and his special envoy for climate change, John Kerry, will initially find a warm reception and abundant goodwill from most world leaders).

This essentially means that the NDC will need to be at least as ambitious as (and probably more so than) the Obama administration target of a 26-28 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, compared with 2005 (which would have been difficult to achieve even if Hillary Clinton had become president). And it will need to compare favorably with the targets now being announced by other major emitters. For example, the European Union is enacting a new target to cut its emissions 55 percent below its 1990 level by 2030. And China recently said it will achieve carbon neutrality (zero net emissions) by 2060.

But if significant ambition is one necessary condition for the new Biden NDC, the other necessary condition is that it be credible, that is, truly achievable given existing and reasonably anticipated policy actions. The only way that both of these necessary conditions can be achieved is with aggressive new domestic climate legislation.”

How do you foresee the new Biden NDC being both ambitious and realistic, given that the world has changed since President Obama, and President Obama’s own idealism often got in his way? 

 

2. President-elect Biden is expected to continue President Trump’s policies on nuclear power. Do you support this? Why or why not? 

 

Reference articles: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nuclearpower-energy/nuclear-power-backers-hopeful-

bidens-climate-focus-will-boost-industry-idUSKBN29G2AY

https://www.forbes.com/sites/dipkabhambhani/2020/12/01/biden-to-continue-trump-nuclear-energy-legacy-industry-calls-president-elect-to-open-international-market/?sh=7b26ebc875a1



Responses:

Daniel:

There’s a lot to dislike in that rebuttal, but I’ll save most of it for the next two rounds and the conclusion, since it was mostly responding to my opening and not my environmental bit. 

 

However, I feel like I have to point out that: (a) Andy did not even attempt to address some of my more damning points on the environmental record (offshore fracks in the Gulf of Mexico, a leading producer of natural gas, etc.), and (b) I see the world in color, not in black and white. As I said: I view Obama’s legacy as mixed (and there’s no doubt, as I’ve also already said, that it beats Trump’s, a shockingly low bar, but that is not the way this motion was phrased, and this is the exact trap I feared that we might fall into, simply lauding him for being better than Trump). 

 

It is no contradiction, therefore, to say that I don’t think his legacy should be, on the whole, emulated by the Biden administration. I have already outlined many ways in which I think the administration failed to uphold its ideals, in the environment and in general-- policy tradeoffs made by the administration-- but this does not compel me to say it never did anything praiseworthy (as we’ve already proven: neither of us are partisan hacks, after all). That’d be regrettably simplistic and the framing of this debate deserves more nuance than that. It certainly doesn’t serve an issue as complicated and critical and existential as the environment, either.

 

That said, if we’re all just waiting to see the teeth come out, don’t worry, I’m sure they will in the Middle East section. 

 

Since I’ve just rambled, I’ll try to answer your questions tersely, Danielle. On the NDC bit: I’m not sure that Biden will accomplish those goals, though I would love to be surprised here. I think there’s certainly some pressure on Biden to perform environmentally, but there are a lot of moving parts now. On the nuclear question, I’m less against it than many of my friends. I suspect that, keeping the need for aggressive, but possible, reductions in mind, nuclear will probably have to be part of that equation. That’s all I’m really prepared to say on that right now.

 

Andy:

 

I think Danielle is right to pose the question about the Paris Climate Accord, while certainly many can agree it’s good that President rejoined the deal, the measurements are only voluntary and will take a lot of strict adherence and coordination with our allies which is why I think it is important someone of John Kerry’s stature hold such an essential climate role. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) pressed Secretary of State Tony Blinken during his confirmation hearings to disregard John Kerry’s working with a country like China if they cooperate on climate to let them off the hook on other pressing matters, such as trade and human rights.

 

Now let’s broaden this out and talk about the energy ramifications that I know Daniel disappointed about me not addressing in his “ramble.” We have seen Conservative Republicans fight back against President Biden rejoining the accord with made up statistics of losing 60,000 oil and gas jobs. However, worth noting is that Biden also in a series of executive actions canceled the keystone pipeline as well seriously scale back the oil and gas industry, which I mostly agree but does spark and deservedly so wider debate about industry v climate we have seen play throughout the world, such as with coal workers and former President Trump’s support from them promising to bring their jobs back when he failed to do so. I believe that the oil and gas industry is a dying industry that has produced a lot of harm when we think of things like the BP oil spill, an industry where regular workers have gotten shafted and seen the highest profits of executives. We saw them get a free ride under the Bush administration given former Vice President Cheney being a former oil executive himself. 

 

One of the biggest bits of misinformation Republicans use about the climate is that it will cost jobs when just the opposite, a generation of green jobs awaits us under wind and solar. 

 

Danielle raises the nuclear power issue and importantly so, especially as fellow residents of the Hudson Valley with Indian Point in our backyard think about constantly and must admit I have waivered on. I do think Biden approach of keeping most of the Trump administration's plan on nuclear power in place to be the right thing because nuclear power is the cleanest most efficient power there is, but of course I am not oblivious to horrible events such as Fukishima and disasters that could occur around it. I think however, there should be more safeguards put up against such possibilities of natural disasters rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater in changing the policy. When it comes to a policy like fracking however, which is dangerous and does harm our drinking water I prefer nuclear power to stay, however I will note President Biden does support fracking and I disagree with him on that point while I mostly agree with everything else and his ambitious climate agenda. 

 

While there are many similar faces and Joe Biden was Vice President in the Obama administration, this is not a third term of President Obama’s because the world has so fundamentally changed in the age of covid. Which I think allows President Biden to have a more ambitious agenda as was alluded to, I look forward to continuing this debate.

 

III.

Submotion C: President Obama should be lauded for his international trade policies. 

Submotion D: President Obama should be lauded for his policies in relation to the Middle East. 
 

Andy: 

International Trade:

President Biden last week signed an executive “Buy American” order. To help prioritize rebuilding our domestic economy. This is not a new concept as was witnessed in the 30’s during the great depression, particularly buying American cars to help stimulate America’s manufacturing industry. Biden’s approach is similar to his more populist primary rivals Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and even former President Trump’s approach with his former senior strategist Steve Bannon referred to it as “economic nationalism.” As an internationalist I am hesitant about this approach. 

 

Similarly to climate change and the response to COVID-19, economic challenges as we are seeing are not prevented by borders and require a coordinated global response. The world is more interconnected than ever before and I think that limits the “Buy American” approach. For example I referenced American cars, I happen to drive a Toyota, manufactured in Kentucky but Toyota is a Japanese company, the idea also being that American companies like General motors can go over to Japan and open up plants to do business there, when it comes to the economic market everything is global. Which is why I support the Trans Pacific and Trans Atlantic trade pacs and supported USMCA negotiated under the Trump administration to replace NAFTA, particularly because it raises the standards of working and environmental conditions. Free trade agreements can also cover other important areas like visa free reciprocal travel with allies like Australia and the presence of US/UN command in South Korea to protect from the North Korean threat. Free trade like TPP would also harmonize global intellectual property laws, especially given the China challenge of notoriously stealing trade secrets. However, I am under no illusions of the downsides of free trade and the impact it has had on so many American workers, hence the “economic patriotism” backlash that helped lead to Trump’s initial election in 2016. There needs to be better job training and apprenticeship programs to train a new generation of American workers in things like previously mentioned green clean energy jobs. As well as improvements to programs like lost wages where workers who were victims of free trade can participate in college programs for free so that we have a better safety net for America’s middle class. 

 

Middle East:

Where do we even begin? One of the major traction points for Presidential candidates like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama where “ending America’s forever wars' ' particularly in the wake of fatigue of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, which candidates like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were criticized for supporting. 

 

However, the Obama administration being case in point, with a more dovish posture, wanting to rebalance towards Asia the Arab Spring and civil war and Syria showed that the US can’t just isolate. Rather than being engaged forever wars, standing up and being a humanitarian and diplomatic leader in the region is something Biden should continue in Obama’s spirit. The elephant in the room obviously being the Iran Nuclear deal, which can be tricky but accomplished for President Biden to rejoin provided Iran’s compliance and our phased lifting of sanctions. The other major area being the Abraham Accords negotiated under the Trump administration that normalized Israel’s relationship with several Arab states including the UAE, Sudan and Morocco, which also have a large economic component built in as well. Secretary of State Blinken at his confirmation hearing said he would try to build on these tenuous agreements but President Biden has also replenished aid to the Palestinians and re-established diplomatic channels with them so that they can be a necessary a part of any peace talks, I strongly agree with this approach.  

Daniel: 

International Trade:

It’s tempting to pivot to discussing what Biden has done already, and to focus on that, but I want to stick to the confines of the debate as it was originally conceived which are tied more to the Obama legacy which I think still hoovers over Democratic politics and may for some time. 

 

My own view has been that there’s been an absence of accomplishment here. Obviously, TPP was Obama’s attempt to check the growing influence of China. I think if we step back on that score and ask how successful he was in keeping tensions with China from escalating I think absence, or void, is the word that comes to mind. If anything, the talks provided China a chance to push on their Silk Road initiative which has been more successful. I won’t belabor the point (for a change!). The gamble that Obama made here was giving up precious policy space to make trade the singular focus of his administration, a lot of the rest was relegated to last minute executive orders. I think, on balance, again we’re trying to be as fair-minded and nuanced as possible, this proved to be a mistake. 

It set back the environmental agenda, and Obama himself was barely able to muster support in his own party for the TPP, which people often forget was unpopular with some Democrats. 

 

Elizabeth Warren was a vociferous critic of the deal on the grounds that it weakened public safety regulations through the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clause, which she said could violate American sovereignty and which would harm attempts to regulate banking. The problem was both the conduct of Obama himself, who negotiated the deal in secret with corporate lobbyists and who sought the “fast track” option from Congress to rush it through, as well as the contents of the TPP. 

 

Most of the issues in general, as I recall, had to do with the dispute settlement process, which opened the way for corporate interests to do all sorts of things only vaguely connected to trade. That’s all really complicated and I would encourage readers, whatever masochistic readers have made it this far in the debate, to look it up. But the upshot was that it favored massive corporations. More persuasive, speaking for myself, was the fact that places like Doctors Without Borders were against it because it could have increased drug prices and slowed generic drugs, a sort of localized version of that broad argument I just highlighted (which the Obama administration pushed for, I would point out, by seeking to delay the ability of drug companies in countries that signed on to the deal to produce generics, which was hypocritical because it conflicted with the administration’s own 2016 budget). But, to sum it up, no this was not a win for him.


 

The Middle East:

I outlined my case against the Obama legacy in my opening already, and I would say it’s telling that Andy describes Obama’s foreign policy as dovish in “posture.”

 

 Of course, Biden has never really been a dove. And of course the situation is different in many ways from the Obama era. But I see two questions here. One: how much should Biden seek to emulate the Obama legacy on foreign policy? Two: How much can Biden actually do given the state of things?

 

On the “should” question (which is the real question of this debate, and which is by its phrasing prescriptive). Nothing that’s been said so far undoes what I laid out in the opening. The only real attempt was character attacks against Julian Assange, which came with an admission that I was right on Edward Snowden. As for Assange, I don’t much care to defend his character. It’s irrelevant. The US was not going after him to extradite him to another country because he’s a scummy guy. It was going after him for facilitating the leaks. So, my point stands, even if Assange is loathsome, which I’m prepared to grant, the administration was attempting to shut down the channel from which the world was learning about the shocking and frankly horrific activities it was trading in globally. 

 

So, I’ll restate the charges. The Obama administration extended imperial follies after promising the opposite. He increased troops to Afghanistan, refused to close Gitmo, doubled down on drone strikes, and attacked whistleblowers. One could perhaps forgive him if he had a principled or consistent policy here, but he didn’t. He moved on Libya and failed to act decisively in Syria. It was unprincipled and, with an exception already discussed, it was ineffectual.

 

I say again: “The full consequence of this has been to allow the president, through accretion, to have picked up the power to murder citizens, of America and of the world, on suspicion alone, flattening the concept of rule of law. The president did this while throwing everything it could at whistle-blowers, like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, who were attempting to reveal to the world the suspect methods and motives of the American surveillance regime upon which these suspicions-- which, I remind you, have life or death consequences-- were founded.”

 

And Andy calls this, by implication, humanitarianism. Let the audience decide if this is an appropriate use of the word... I’ll admit that his language here was unclear and perhaps I misunderstood. If, then, Andy is saying that he’d prefer the Biden administration to find a way of moving past the faux-dovishness of Obama and finding a truly humanitarian approach to international affairs, then I agree. There’s nothing in my comments that I can see which commits me to isolationism. If that’s the case, we both now agree: the Obama program isn’t worth reprising here. 

 

Regardless, I take it from his record that Biden is in no danger of unwinding this trend, nor of walking back from the other trend I mentioned in my opening (that of amassing war powers in the presidency). As I write, in fact, the expectation is that the Biden administration will announce a delay in the expected troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. My contention is, as it was at the beginning, that the Biden administration ought to move forward from the confused, unprincipled foreign policy of the Obama one. Emphasis on the word “ought.” 

 

Andy also seems eager to embrace the Biden capitulation on Palestine. Since this is not strictly within the confines of this debate, and since we’ve dragged on much longer than we were supposed to, I will restrain myself and just say that I think it’s very damaging to the Palestinian cause and I’m not optimistic that the Biden administration even wants to resucitate it. As Andy himself pointed out, Biden has already capitulated on this. The embassy is staying in Jerusalem; the new normal has already been set, and it dispossesses them. Bilken’s line was that we need “trust-building” (and, of course, Biden has made comments that make it perfectly clear he won’t go to bat for the Palestians or for a two-state solution). That’s not a serious line for peace; it’s essentially, as some papers have pointed out, a reprisal of failed peace efforts in the region. If the US is serious, they could push both sides to come to the table for a binding international decision with serious concessions from both sides. If we’re pushing for a humanitarian foreign policy, a la Andy, this seems like a reasonable problem to try to solve, which would even have implications for Iran. That’s prescriptive. Now for descriptive, since everyone always wants predictions on these things. It seems pretty clear that Biden’s presidency is engulfed in domestic issues. On foreign policy, he will most likely focus on China, Russia, and Iran. This middle of the road, ineffectual approach we’re expecting, to return to the perimeters of the debate, is pretty reminiscent of the Obama years. 



IV. Concluding remarks

 

Daniel

To conclude, then.  As of now, I don’t know what Andy will say in his conclusion. Consequently, I’m forced to deal with the points on the table from the course of this debate. During the debate, I attempted to outline a case for why I think that Obama, when we reflect upon his presidency in light of the years that have elapsed since he left office, did not have a particularly glittering record, and certainly not one that should be actively adopted by future Democratic administrations, and I say that as someone who once canvassed for Obama. 

 

In these elapsed years, and indeed while Obama was in office, we saw a massive upswing, domestically, in inequality, and in foreign policy, the domain of this debate, we saw a failure to ensure meaningful environmental changes, a failure to successfully wind down military excursions and occupations, and a failure to check the spreading influence of China, which was the big picture goal of his trade policy. I haven’t seen much substantive pushback on these points from Andy, and none at all on some of my more daming points. 

 

I conceded, for the purpose of this debate, that Obama was a genuinely progressive-leaning person who wanted to advance these goals and tried to do so. I also conceded that he was better than Trump, a low bar for a Democratic president. Nonetheless, we’re left with an embarrassing void of accomplishment, with one or two possible exceptions (which we discussed). On the whole, these policy goals are as bad or worse off than when Obama found them. Therefore, on the grounds of this debate, I think we have to conclude (are forced to conclude, in fact) that the legacy was a failure. 

 

Thanks to you precocious few readers that made it through this. I hope it helped you make up your mind. Thanks to Danielle for hosting. Thanks to Andy for participating. Take it easy. 

Andy:

Thank you Danielle for hosting this debate and thank you Daniel for participating. While the world is in a very different place since President Obama entered and left office the core values of the Obama administration when it comes to following a rules based order and its priorities should be and I believe will be preserved for the Biden administration. Similarly to President Biden, President Obama inherited one of the worst economies since the great depression and through his economic stimulus and recovery act saw the strongest consecutive months of private sector job growth. President Biden is attempting something similar in his $1.9 trillion dollar covid relief package now before Congress. On issues like trade and the environment Obama set an important precedent on keeping our drinking water clean and our natural habitat safe. Interestingly Daniel cites China’s growing influence in the world as an “Obama failure” while the key initiative to contain China as part of Obama’s rebalance to Asia (which I strongly supported) the trans pacific partnership which would have harmonized intellectual property laws and raised working standards. Daniel is right to bring up issues such as drones, Edward Snowden and Guantanamo bay as issues that should be considered serious national debate, overall however his arguments ramble are muddle and seem to have trouble taking clear positions and more out of talking points of a far left chat room. However, looking past this debate I hope to see President Biden continue to focus on an ambitious climate and economic agenda and internationally involve working with our allies to develop a consensus and engage with the world for the United States to be a diplomatic and yes humanitarian leader once again. 

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