As the world parts company with the third American president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in office, it seems a fitting time to not only take stock of Barack Obama’s record on contributing to world peace, but also to assess the overall impact of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades. The nature of US engagement with the world shifted dramatically after the 9/11 terror attacks, as the military found a new call for their services as an interventionist force after a period in the wilderness in the 1990ies, when the cold war had ended and a new enemy was yet to be identified.
There are of course many possible ways to assess success or failure of military interventions, but by one fundamental measure the US and its allies have undoubtedly fallen short: not in one of the countries where US-led coalition forces have been actively engaged since 2001 exists conditions today which can be characterised as peaceful. Iraq has a nominally functional government, but is still haunted by insurgent warfare, primarily from ISIS. Afghanistan is equally unstable, despite NATO officially ending military operations in 2014, and the US is now quietly sending 300 Marines back into Helmand Province. After what is generally seen as a failed intervention to help rebel forces remove Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has been plunged into a desperate civil war which, despite numerous attempts by the UN to stop the conflict, seems to have no end in sight. And in Syria, currently the main theatre of US military activities, a full-blow war is raging – a war which has pitted Russia and NATO against each other in a way which has brought tensions between the two blocks to its most charged since the end of the cold war. The Syrian conflict has seen around 9 million people displaced and 13.5 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance on the ground.
Other measures of peace and stability are equally unfavourable to claims of Western interference being a benign influence. One menace which has haunted Middle Eastern populations in particular is suicide attacks. In three countries where US-led coalition forces have intervened in order to liberate the people from oppressive regimes, frequent suicide attacks have been an unfortunate side-effect, as insurgent groups have waged guerrilla warfare and religious tensions between various Muslim factions have exploded.
Suicide attacks by country since 1982
|Before US intervention||After US intervention|
The table above is based on data from the University of Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST), which tracks suicide attacks going back to 1982, and it clearly exposes how military intervention can have lasting unintended effects by changing the very nature of how diverse population co-habit the same geographical area. Brutal dictators as they were, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi controlled their populations and prevented religious tension from flowing over into widespread violence. If the US-led coalition is successful in removing Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria it is reasonable to expect a similar scenario there.
All this violence has led to mass casualties, both military and civilian. There are estimates that up to 200,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq since 2003; in Afghanistan the number is 31,000 since the start of their war. And in Syria up to 400,000 people, civilian and military, may have been killed over the five years the conflict has lasted so far.
So, the general verdict on the interventionist foreign policy of the last decade-and-a-half is clearly not very favourable. The objectives, which themselves are sinister, often opaque and certainly not always in line with how it is sold to the general public, can hardly be said to have been met in any of the high-profile conflicts in which the US has been involved, but the human cost to the local populations has been heavy. Of course, Obama inherited much of this mess, so it is worth assessing his personal record in isolation. Unfortunately, it is not what you would expect of a man who has been honoured with the world’s most prestigious accolade for his contribution to peace. Obama did have some achievements, like easing the nuclear standoff with Iran (though critics argue it made Iran stronger, the exact opposite of what the US is trying to achieve by fighting Assad in Syria) and starting the normalisation of relations with Cuba. But in other areas he fell woefully short. While his administration managed to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan in 2014, there are still almost 10,000 US soldiers in the country. In Iraq there are 4,600. All counted there are 130,000 active military personal operating outside the US as Obama leaves office. During his presidency drone strikes have become a mainstream tool of warfare. His big campaign promise to close the Guantanamo military prison camp remains unfulfilled eight years later. The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is no closer to a solution, despite the enormous amounts of US political and monetary investment in the so-called peace process. Geopolitically, Obama leaves amid high tensions, his relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin one which can not even be characterised as courteous. But most importantly, the US is of course still waging war. Libya and Syria are Obama-era wars. The US is currently involved in airstrikes in seven countries and just in 2016 Uncle Sam dropped 26,171 bombs – one every 20 mins – primarily in Iraq and Syria.
All in all, a damning verdict on the presidency of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The interventionist foreign policy which the US and its allies have pursued in the last 15 years – and which Obama, despite his rhetoric, has been unable (or unwilling) to change – is an abject failure; one which has hardly any real achievements to its name, but has plunged country after country into desperate, unending wars and condemned entire populations to abject misery. As Obama is succeeded by Donald Trump in the White House it is all we can hope for that it will herald a change of direction in the way the US deploys its mighty military force.