Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1321, (24 - 30 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obama’s military legacy

While closing the door on diplomacy, outgoing US President Barack Obama enabled the most volatile region in the world to load up on the latest weaponry, writes Bill Law

Al-Ahram Weekly

In 2009, a few scant months after winning the US presidency, Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” It was a decision that surprised many and one that the then Nobel Committee Secretary, Geir Lundestad, later came to regret.

“Even many of Obama’s supporters believed that the prize was a mistake,” Lundestad said in 2015, while promoting his memoir entitled Secretary of Peace. He added that “in that sense the committee didn’t achieve what it had hoped for.”

It certainly did not. The truth of the matter is that Barack Obama, rather than becoming the emissary for global peace that the Nobel Committee naively believed he would be, became instead the warrior president. As US commander-in-chief, he eagerly embraced an emerging kind of war, one that is played in the shadows with surrogates and drone strikes, a war that relies heavily on special operations forces (SOF) carrying out clandestine missions in far flung corners of the globe.

It is a war that has helped to generate huge profits for the American arms industry. It is a war, we are told, that has killed thousands of terrorists but is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them Yemeni victims of a brutal aerial campaign led by Saudi Arabia but supported with logistics and armaments supplied by the United States and the UK.

The careers of presidents and prime ministers are often seen through the prism of the wars that they have led their countries into. Former US president George W Bush, like former UK prime minister Tony Blair, will forever be tied to the Iraq War and, in that regard, Bush is seen as more warlike than Obama.

But the facts belie this narrative. Bush authorised 50 drone strikes during his two terms in office. The strikes accounted for the deaths of nearly 300 targeted individuals and almost 200 civilians. In his eight years in office, Obama has authorised over 500 drone attacks, 10 times the number Bush approved. He has succeeded in killing 3,040 targeted individuals and 391 civilians, though it is hard in the fog of drone strikes to know how the Pentagon arrived with such precision at those figures.

Under Obama, the US special forces budget nearly doubled from $6 billion to $11 billion, while the numbers expanded from 56,000 in 2009 to roughly 70,000 today. Special forces operate in the space between war and peace, the so-called Grey Zone. They are said to carry a small footprint and get to places and carry out actions that others cannot.

The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden is one such example. We know about it because the US president and his handlers went public on the raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan, chiefly to answer critics’ claims that under his leadership the US had “gone soft” on terrorists.

But there are many more strikes that we do not know about or, as is the case in the current Mosul offensive, we know next to nothing about.

However, that is the kind of war that Obama chose to fight almost from the moment he became US president, and judging from the Bin Laden hit, it is a kind of warfare he takes no small satisfaction in commanding.

While Obama was approving and conducting a policy of clandestine warfare and war via proxy, America was selling vast quantities of weapons to the Middle East. Again, the figures are revealing. In the eight years that Obama has been in the Oval Office, his administration has approved $278 billion of arms sales, many of them to its allies in the region, with the Saudis, at $115 billion, being by far the biggest customers.

That figure of $278 billion is more than double the amount approved by Bush. Since the end of the Second World War, US weapons export sales have averaged $11 billion annually. And in every year of the Obama presidency, US weapons sales have exceeded that figure, often by a substantial amount.

Indeed, as Americans were going to the polls on 8 November to elect a new president, the Pentagon announced that it had approved $33.6 billion in arms sales in 2016, which doesn’t include fighter jet deals with Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain that are expected to exceed $7 billion.

The weaponry being sold is the latest in high-tech warfare: F15 jets, Apache combat helicopters, M1 Abrams tanks, Patriot missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), air-borne early warning aircraft (AEWs), ballistic missile defences, corvettes, landing craft, anti-tank missiles – the list is seemingly endless.

In the same way, the conflicts in the region are seemingly endless, and Obama, the Iran nuclear deal aside, has spent precious little time attempting to resolve them through the art of diplomacy. If anything, he has abandoned diplomatic solutions, as he pivoted US foreign policy towards the Far East, attempting to contain China’s rising aspirations.

So this most articulate and passionate of speakers, this erudite and thoughtful president, is, in fact, no hesitant warrior but is instead a man who has embraced the art of war in the shadows, while merchandising sophisticated weaponry to a region that is the most volatile in the world and one that, while he has been president, has become increasingly unstable.

How reckless was it of him to enthusiastically encourage weapons sales with such zeal and so little restraint in such a dangerous neighbourhood? It is left to his successor, a man who appears to know virtually nothing about the Middle East, to either inherit the mantle of a warrior who fights in the shadows or to come out bristling with all guns blazing. Then again, US President-elect Donald Trump may carry out the threat he made during his election campaign to withdraw US forces from the region.

All of these options are now on the table, and none promises much in the way of bringing peace to a region that is growing increasingly accustomed to a grim scenario of seemingly never-ending warfare.


The writer is a Middle East analyst and specialist in Gulf affairs.

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