By: Christopher Linnan In politics it often makes more sense to be confidently wrong than unconfidently right. Unfortunately, this lesson was demonstrated many times over during the Bush Administration and its War on Terror. The last five years have seen a sharp relief from the previous presidency and its approach to combating terrorism. If one would like to assess how President Obama has improved from the previous administration one need only look at his attitude towards Guantanamo Bay and torture, armed intervention in Syria, and his impact on the American image. President Obama has not done a perfect job and several of his policies seem misguided. However, he has made America a safer place, while working to improve its world image.
One of the primary criticisms that President Obama still faces is that he has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, which costs American taxpayers over $900,000 a year per inmate to keep open, (compared to $60,000 for an inmate at a “supermax” prison in the United States).[i] Most, if not all of the inmates, are accused of serious crimes, but America’s international prestige has been damaged by the indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without due process.
After failing to shut down Guantanamo Bay in his first term, President Obama recently reopened the debate. There is some skepticism as to how serious he is, but one should remember that he officially banned torture immediately after taking office and invested significant political capital in an attempt to close Guantanamo five years ago.[ii] Closing Guantanamo would be a step in the right direction and serve to further promote a better image of America as President Obama has helped foster for the last five years.
Intervention in Syria
Few reasonable analysts believe that America will have any serious difficulty crushing President al-Assad and the Syrian army. However, a potential occupation comes with a myriad of problems, including considerable financial costs and the potential loss of more American military service members, who would likely have to fight a guerilla war.[iii]
Despite the challenges America continues to face in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significant segment of our political leaders continues to advocate for an intervention. Professor Alan Kuperman of the University of Texas has shown that even humanitarian intervention can have potentially bad consequences.[iv] While an invasion into Syria may have good intentions, it is fraught with dangers and complications.
Unfortunately, the United States has a long modern history of providing indirect and direct aid to Middle Eastern countries, which has often backfired. This includes arming Saddam Hussein, Libyan rebels who turned out to be members of Al-Qaeda, and providing the Taliban with weapons.[v] Several Syrian rebel groups have participated in numerous atrocities and frankly no one is sure what or who will replace the al-Assad regime. It would be rash and irresponsible to try to force a regime change without having any idea who Syria’s new leaders will be. President Obama’s calm “wait-and-see” approach is a welcome change from the Bush Administration, which attacked first and worried about consequences later.
President Obama had an undeniably positive impact on America’s world-image when he took office. This can be attributed to his policy ideas, his youth and vigor, and a welcome relief from George W. Bush. It is vital that we continue to fight for President Obama’s foreign policy vision if we want to create a safer world. Restoring America’s image in the Middle East will take time and effort, but we have already made strides in the last five years. While our support for Israel and the presence of American troops in places such as Saudi Arabia will turn off some Middle Eastern countries, we must continue to make an effort to isolate radical anti-Americanists in the Middle East from the general population.
President Obama recently admitted in a speech at the National Defense University that “no president can ensure ‘total defeat’ of terrorism [while] acknowledging the continuing threats to U.S. interests abroad as well as the rise of homegrown extremists.”[vi] It is refreshing to finally have a political leader admit that one cannot completely eliminate terrorism, no matter how hard one tries. The president has done an excellent job of creating a constructive dialogue about how to combat terrorism, while keeping America’s world image pristine. Obama might not have done a perfect job, but the aforementioned policy shifts, among others, have contributed greatly to a more positive foreign policy outlook and a brighter future for America.
[i] Chris Lawrence and Matt Smith, “At Guantanamo, a Costly Confinement,” CNN 17 May 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/17/us/guantanamo-costs/index.html, accessed 4 June 2013.
[ii] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Can Obama Clean up Bush’s National-Security Mess,” Bloomberg 29 May 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-29/can-obama-clean-up-bush-s-national-security-mess-.html, accessed 4 June 2013.
[iii] Michael Peck, “The Syrian Invasion,” Foreign Policy 10 January 2012, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/01/10/the_syrian_invasion, accessed 21 June 2013.
[iv] Jordan Smith, “The Real Reason Not to Intervene in Syria,” Salon 3 May 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/05/03/the_real_reason_not_to_intervene_in_syria/, accessed 4 June 2013.
[v] Rand Paul, “Helping Syrian Rebels a Dangerous Risk,” CNN 30 May 2013, http://edition.cnn.com/2013/05/29/opinion/rand-paul-syria/index.html?iref=allsearch, accessed 4 June 2013.
[vi] Albert Hunt, “Obama Gets Terror Policy Right. Will he Fight for it?” Bloomberg 2 June 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-02/obama-gets-terror-policy-right-will-he-fight-for-it-.html, accessed 4 June 2013.