The end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are great accomplishments, but ones Obama should only get partial credit for. Avoiding a possible war with Iran is a great accomplishment on the level of Nixon's opening to China. The number of lives saved from each additional year of war in Iraq would likely have been hundreds of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives.
Who also should gets the credit? The Iraqi government which told Obama to leave, as it had told GW Bush for years. The two nations had agreements negotiated under GW Bush, designed by his administration to give the appearance of independence. To the surprise of both US administrations, the Iraqi government did not want US troops to stay. The final sticking point was the US demand that US troops be above Iraqi and Afghan law. The Iraqi government wanted that due to high profile cases of US troop or mercenary (contractor) murders of civilians.
The Iraqi public overwhelmingly opposed to a US military presence in their nations from the beginning. Within a week after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis held huge demonstrations calling on the US to leave. The American public and antiwar activists pressured Obama to leave, and were greatly responsible for electing him. Obama's winning the Democratic primary in 2008 was largely due to antiwar activists favoring him over Hillary Clinton. Michael Moore played probably the single greatest role of any one person in mobilizing antiwar sentiment with the enormously successful film Fahrenheit 9-11, the most popular documentary in all of history, in the face of an enormous campaign attacking him, even efforts to ban the film. There were no less than four anti-Moore “documentaries” put out in the month after Fahrenheit was released. All four failed, both at the box office and in trying to blunt Fahrenheit and Moore's influence.
By this point, Obama's faults are familiar to most. (His actual faults, not imaginary ones like birther claims.) This is written with the caution that at this writing, there are still over two years left in his term.
Much like Carter, it is difficult to imagine Obama could win the presidency in any other election except after another president's disastrous failures. In 2008, the US had been in two disastrous wars for over five years, with most of the public strongly opposed to them. GW Bush was actually less popular than Nixon was before resigning because of the Watergate Scandal. Bush's administration was one of the most corrupt and incompetent in history, equal to Harding's and Reagan's. Bush bungled not just both wars but the response to Hurricane Katrina. On top of that, the economy had just collapsed due to inequality, plus theft and corruption on the part of the banking and housing industries. When Obama was elected, satire website The Onion posted the headline, “Black man given nation's worst job.”
In the face of all these challenges, and judging him not on politics and ideological tests, Obama can point to humanitarian victories, limited but still impressive. Yet understandably most who voted for him are disappointed because he did not do anything close to what he could have, or what he was elected for. Those in the left progressive community hoped for a Franklin Roosevelt, and quickly expressed their disappointment he was closer to Clinton, a moderate compromiser who looked good only compared to the president before.
Actually Obama is closer to both Carter and Grant, with somewhat successful humane victories and opposition that demonizes him. Those on the right saw him sometimes literally as the devil incarnate. There are large segments of conservatives who claim, in all seriousness, that he is the Antichrist, a lizard man in human form, a secret Muslim, a Communist, a fascist as evil as Hitler, a would be dictator, or somehow a bizarre combination of all these already ludicrous claims all at once. Most on the right said, in Rush Limbaugh's words, “I hope he fails.” They were so fanatically opposed to him many were willing to sabotage the government and the country itself in the failed hope it would bring Obama down.
At the core of perhaps half those who oppose him is their deep racism. The right often portrayed him as a monkey, a witch doctor, a pimp, a gangster, dressed in a turban or Muslim robes. Sarah Palin race baited Obama as “shucking and jiving” while Glenn Beck accused a half white Obama raised by a white mother of “deeply hating whites.” It is difficult to find examples of presidents as fanatically opposed as Obama. In some ways his opponents are much like John Quincy Adams's, where Jackson's supporters spent an entire four years sabotaging Adams just to put Jackson into power next election.
Some Obama opponents resemble the most fanatic FDR haters. Where the American Liberty League plotted to overthrow Roosevelt, many conservatives outright threatened that Obama be overthrown if he does not give in to their demands. The Tea Party movement featured rallies with heavily armed members demanding Obama leave office or be overthrown, and engineered several government shutdowns. The number of militias tripled once Obama became president. Gun sales spiked and threats to assassinate him are so numerous the Secret Service cannot handle them all.
But Roosevelt had majorities in Congress most of his time in office and huge popularity. Obama's party had control of Congress only a few months, while his support was almost never higher than slightly over half. His opponents set new records, the most filibusters in US history, government shutdowns, and refusals to allow officials to be appointed.
Yet much of Obama's problems were self inflicted. An overly cautious man, he also tended to give way to opponents and instead concentrated on getting his allies to compromise too. Immediately he refused to prosecute the many war criminals in the Bush administration. About half of the public wanted trials for war crimes, and the evidence is absolutely clear. Bush and several others openly admitted their crimes. But where Ford had pardoned Nixon for Watergate, Obama tried to avoid the subject entirely. Putting US war criminals on trial would have sent a strong message to anyone daring such atrocities in the future. It would have exposed their crimes more fully and made it impossible to deny these crimes happened. Yet for convenience, in the name of illusory public unity that never happened for either president, both men sent the message that leading criminals in the government are above the law.
For Obama, Iraq was always the wrong war, while Afghanistan was the good and necessary war. He did cautiously and slowly end the Iraq War, in spite of yet more fear mongering and delays by opposition. In the end what pushed Obama out of Iraq was the Iraqi government. Does he deserve credit for being, technically, forced out? Yes. By the account of his own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, he was never committed to these wars and always looking to leave quickly. GW Bush, for example, would have found a way to stay at war, and every major Republican leader called for these wars to continue, as did some Democrats like Lieberman.
One dramatic success Obama can point to is Iran. In spite of decades of neo conservative calls for war with Iran going all the way back to the 1990s, Obama not only refused to go to war, he negotiated a treaty to stop Iran from developing an atomic bomb. The UN and US government had before agreed to a near blockade of Iran, and the treaty traded a partial end to the blockade in exchange for inspections.
Both this treaty and the blockade actually unfairly targeted Iran. There was no evidence at all Iran ever tried to develop an A-bomb, and no effort at all to rein in Israel which has over 100 H-bombs since the 1970s, its weapons developed from an alliance with South Africa under apartheid and plutonium stolen from the US. Still, the treaty between the US and Iran is as big a landmark as when Nixon recognized China. It virtually guarantees better relations and makes a war very unlikely. Should the treaty succeed over the long term, the number of deaths prevented are easily in the thousands, likely tens of thousands.
It should be fairly obvious to all but the most blind: War in Iraq failed before, and could only fail again. US planes bombing Iraqis again would only further anger the Iraqi public against the US, and discredit the Iraqi government. What is needed are diplomatic solutions, allied with that same Iranian government unfairly demonized by the right for supposed nuclear ambitions it never had. (What is not unfair are all the criticisms of Iran for its human rights record.)
Taken together, all of Obama's accomplishments, limited, very compromised, and getting done only because he was pushed from his left or by Afghans and Iraqis, all still add up to potentially being remembered as a good president. The one thing preventing him from being judged as an unqualified humanitarian president is his drone assassination program. That puts him in the same category as Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, presidents who carried out both great good and horrific evil.
Portions were dapted from an excerpt from Presidents' Body Counts at www.smashwords.com/books/view/419159
Al Carroll is Assistant Professor of History at Northern Virginia Community College and a former Fulbright Scholar. His other books are Medicine Bags and Dog Tags: American Indian Veteran Traditions from Colonial Times to the Second Iraq War and Survivors: Family Histories of Colonialism, Genocide, and War. He is a longtime activist and researcher for NewAgeFraud.org. More information on him can be found at http://alcarroll.com.
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