Monday, December 29, 2014

Obama’s score cards

Obama has been the US President for 6 years and has been the subject of fierce criticisms from the Right and sometimes from the Left for most of the 6 years.  It is probably sufficient at this point to evaluate his performance, even with two more years in the WH. 

To begin with, it is not off the mark to say he qualifies as a war criminal under any conventional definitions or if he were the president of a weak country.  Giving Obama the Nobel Prize in Peace is, in contrast to popular thinking, entirely consistent with the Prize’s character.  Obama has largely continued Bush’s war policies after Bush, often even exceeding in the details.  He has bombed many countries, killing many civilians, even with his definition of military aged men as automatic enemies.  But this is naturally true for any US presidents, and you are a war criminal only if NYT says you are.  So why beat the dead horse here? 

On the other hand, anybody other than Obama residing in the WH right now is likely to have been more blood thirsty than he is.  Can you imagine what Hillary, McCain, or Romney would have done?  So, Obama does deserve a few credits, even if not everything he claims for or what some supporters or critics say.

1. Ending the Iraq War, notwithstanding the recent ISIS situations.  Obama claims he withdrew the US troops from Iraq, and his critics in the Right said he was wrong to do so.   But the agreement with the Iraqi government was negotiated with Bush, and Obama actually tried but failed to get Iraqis’ concessions on troops, so the US had no choice but to leave.  It is disingenuous for Obama to claim credit, and it is also disingenuous for critics to blast him for this. 
Obama’s score card: 30 (from 0 to 100, with 100 being the most humanly decent action).

2. Afghan war.  Simply natural flows from Bush’s and Obama’s policies.  Less US ground assaults, but more drone attacks.  No more renditions, just bombs away.  This also applies to other countries US had attacked and is currently attacking. 
Obama’s score card: 0.

3. Iran.  Obama has been negotiating and so far resisted bombing and even blocked the Israelis from doing so.  This is something any of his major presidential challengers and presidents before and after Obama would have done differently.  Hillary is always a hawk, McCain sang “bomb bomb bomb” in 2008, and Romney, largely a novice, would offer no resistance from conventional Washington thinking.  The only thing preventing Obama from resolving the Iranian nuclear issue is Israel keeps bogus documents and accusations alive, and Obama has no stomach to defy it and the long standing US hostility towards Iran.  So the peace prospect remains dim.   Still, we need to consider the fact that anybody, even the President, is constrained by circumstances, conventions, and the system.  So Obama has done something unthinkable, whether or not he possesses the courage to finish the right thing.
Obama’s score card: 90.
4. Cuba.  Obama announced in Dec 2014 to start normalization with Cuba, reversing a US policy of the past 50 years.  This is another remarkable thing Obama has done, or said so far.  On the other hand, this is something recent US presidents had thought of: clearly the right thing to do in their mind and with the support of most Americans.  But they failed to act because of a few vocal Cuban-Americans in FL.  In reality, this is not as a big deal as the Iran issue, and maybe the 2014 mid-term congressional losses spurred Obama, but it still requires courage. 
Obama’s score card: 70.

5. Syria.  Obama has taken side in the Syrian civil war but resisted bombing Assad’s forces directly.  The UN have blocked the authorization of force, having learned the Libya lesson, so Obama has a cover and can’t claim much of the credit.  Yet, a notable episode is the so-called Syrian chemical attack in August, 2013.  Obama had previously set a red line for the use of WMD, which was silly: what is the difference?  But when the reports of chemical attack came in, Obama was forced to say something and act, and he acted belligerently, even when the evidence then and till now never implicated Assad.  With Obama ready to pull the trigger, it was Russia that actually saved him from being Bush, and it did require brain and gut from Obama to climb down.  Brain: Obama likely knew soon afterwards that the evidence against Assad was weak to nil, so he and his people never claimed as much later.  But US presidents knew the initial reports to be wrong all the time, think LBJ, but few had the gut to reverse course.  Thus, it did take Obama nerve to correct his own mistake.  Critics all blasted Obama for drawing a red line then failing to act on it, but few considers whether it is the right thing to do, or is the credibility of a president more important than human decency?
Obama’s score card: 60.

6. Healthcare.  ACA is Obama’s signature domestic achievement.  It is controversial only because it is a big issue affecting everybody and so many interest groups.  Considering how expensive and how ineffective American healthcare system is, reform is inevitable, but if you want to enroll more people but keep the existing system largely intact, you have to have individual mandates, hence, taxes and penalties.  ACA provisions are reasonable or supportable for anybody, but the only real objections are about cost.  Can we afford it?  Many people object to the extra, usually small expenses and further elevate the issue to a matter of personal freedom.  At the end of the day, this is something people need to consider: what kind of country should the US be, and is healthcare a right?  Regardless, Obama deserves credit for doing something instead of just talking, even if his negotiation and promotion of ACA has been faulty.
Obama’s score card: 70.

7. Surveillance, transparency, and torture.  Obama campaigned to have the most transparent administration ever, but his is arguably the least in recent memories.  He has come down hard on unofficial leaks, while official leaks continue.  What has Obama done with regard to Snowden’s leaks of NSA?  Nothing, except trying to get Snowden.  In fairness, this kind of NSA activities have gone on forever, increased with technical feasibilities.  Critics of ACA often have no qualm with NSA, even though NSA has been infringing on privacy and freedom much longer.  Then the CIA torture issue.  Obama banned it after he took office, but it is largely ceremonial, as few will think the US is no longer engaged in such acts, just that no longer an official figure like Cheney is openly advocating it.  This remains a system matter, remember Abu Ghraib, by the US military and other agencies?  Obama’s position rang hollow with his refusal prosecute anybody in the Bush administration and senior CIA officials. 
Obama’s score card: 0.

8. Other policies.  Despite a minority of points above, Obama has continued long-standing domestic and international US policies for the most part.  Understandably, it is hard to change or defy a system.  Notably is the SONY-North Korea-Obama spar in Dec 2014.  In short, SONY computer system was recently hacked, and North Korea was suspected because of a SONY movie “The Interview”, and Obama retaliated by blocking North Korea internet access.  But the role of North Korea in SONY hacking is never proven, and the evidence is not even much or strong to begin with.  Obama likely felt he must do something, or anything, to placate his critics, so he chose internet outage as a punishment.  At least it is not bombs, but wait, North Korea has THE bomb too!
Obama’s score card: same as every other president.

In summary, Obama is the best anyone can have among the few choices there were and all recent US presidents.  He did or didn’t do certain things anybody else wouldn’t or would have done.  His policies along with his skin color have promoted enough animosities in the American political system that it is largely paralyzed for the past several years.  While Obama can still do something in the next two years to further distinguish himself in history, the long term prospect of peace is not promising and likely worsened after 2016.

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