The Obama Administration’s recent thawing of diplomatic relations with Cuba and the President’s subsequent visit to the country have earned plaudits from many political observers, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Despite these good intentions, President Obama’s visit to Cuba has mainly had only a symbolic impact. Real progress has not been made regarding issues like the trade embargo and human rights violations by both parties. Like the other facets of his foreign policy, this half-hearted gesture towards Cuba embodies the missed opportunities and costly inaction throughout the world that have characterized Mr. Obama’s eight years in office.
In the Middle East, the United States’ role as a promoter of stability has been undermined by a failure to act decisively. In 2012, President Obama himself declared that Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own citizens was a “red line,” and crossing it would warrant “enormous consequences.” A year later, Syrian government forces launched a nerve gas attack on rebel-held neighborhoods of Damascus as Washington looked on. Although the situation was eventually defused when Russian forces confiscated the chemical weapons, Obama’s claims left the United States discredited and toothless. Furthermore, the lifting of sanctions under the Iran nuclear deal has provided an economic lifeline to the country in exchange for limited restrictions on nuclear infrastructure and lax enforcement. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger expects Iran “will become a significant nuclear, industrial, and military power” when the terms of the deal expire, making it “likely [for the United States] to necessitate deepening involvement.”
Internationally, American hegemony has eroded with the rise of regional powers such as Russia and China. Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria has prompted a lacklustre response from the Obama Administration. The cancellation of a vital missile defense system in Poland had all the makings of appeasing a hungry Vladimir Putin, and paved the way for later incursions into Crimea. Putin’s withdrawal of his forces from Syria has cast the Russian president in the light of a peacemaker while the United States has been relegated to the sidelines. The Chinese-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (of which the United Kingdom is a member) as a rival to the International Monetary Fund has isolated American presence in the region despite the much-lauded “pivot towards Asia.” Around the world, the Obama Administration’s inaction has led smaller states to affiliate with other local powers, limiting the United States’ once-strong sphere of influence.
While President Obama has achieved success in revitalizing the American economy and providing basic health care coverage to the uninsured, his foreign policy legacy will be remembered as falling short of maintaining America’s status as a global leader during times of crisis. American inaction during Obama’s time in office has precipitated the bloody aftermath of the Arab Spring, facilitated the expansion of an ever-dangerous Russia, and has resulted in a loss of credibility. In an age where democracy is assaulted left and right, the United States must rise to the occasion to protect not only foreign populaces, but also the interests of its own people