If one needs a yardstick to judge the 2016 State of the Union Address delivered by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, his last speech from the podium of the US Congress in the 8-year presidency, it is best done by taking a de tour. Read first the Vox Online paper’s assessment of his relative standing in the pantheon of American presidents.

US President Barack Obama delivers his final State of the Union address

Vox gave Obama a fabulous thumbs up: “You can generally divide American presidents into two camps: the mildly good or bad but ultimately forgettable (Clinton, Carter, Taft, Harrison) and the hugely consequential for good or evil (FDR, Lincoln, Nixon, Andrew Johnson). Whether you love or hate his record, there’s no question Obama’s domestic and foreign achievements place him firmly in the latter camp”.

Vox may be right on Obama’s domestic achievements, which are considerable – nay, even historic. But, foreign policy achievements? They tell a patchy story. For a foreigner observing things from far, the 2016 State of the Union Address is a huge disappointment.

On the single most traumatic situation affecting world peace today – the crisis in the Middle East – Obama was plainly evasive. He said: “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. Period.

What does he mean? Does he mean that the region has spun out of control and has to find its equilibrium in the fullness of time? Or, that in about next 15 to 20 years, the Muslim Middle East will tear itself apart on sectarian lines? Or, will the region transform as democratic societies?

The root of much of the crisis in that region is traceable to the US’ regional policies through the past half-century and more. But Obama distances the US from the turmoil – except in regard of the war on terror, which affects ‘homeland security’. He devotes almost one-half of his address to the war against the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, but his only suggestion is that the Congress should “authorize the use of military forces” against the IS.

The Middle East region’s demons are stealthily taking habitation in Europe’s great cities like Paris and Cologne. Isn’t that the Obama administration’s legacy, too?

A political settlement in Syria becomes Obama’s obligation to the US’ trans-Atlantic allies. But for achieving a settlement in Syria, the US needs Russia’s help. And how is that possible so long as Obama estimates it is only Russia that’s fueling the conflict in Syria?

He says in the speech, “Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria – states they see slipping away from their orbit”.

Obama is being very unfair to his secretary of state, undermining John Kerry’s sustained efforts to hold the Russian hand to somehow get the Syrian process started.

Quite obviously, next to the IS and al-Qaeda, it is Russia that is bugging Obama’s mind. Russia has become an obsession with him. He can’t get it out of his mind that President Vladimir Putin checkmated him all the way. It has become far too personal and is clouding his judgment.

What about China? To quote Obama, “Economic headwinds blow from a Chinese economy in transition”; on the other hand, Obama draws satisfaction that with the Trans-Pacific Agreement – provided, of course, the US Congress approves it and grants him “the tools to enforce it” – he has ensured that “China doesn’t set the rules in that region (Asia-Pacific), we do”. Really?

Yet, Obama says not a word about the US’ rebalance strategy in that part of the world – although the strategy was conceived on his watch. Is his silence an admission of failure, or of changed priorities? Has Obama given up on the ‘rebalance’?

Of course, the best thing about the 2016 State of the Union Address is the reiteration of the so-called Obama Doctrine – American power has severe limitations in the contemporary world and “leadership means a wise application of military power and rallying the world”.

He was quite frank about it: “Our answer (to the world’s problems) needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet bomb civilians… We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq – and we should have learned it by now”.

However, hold on. It’s too early to say yet that the Obama Doctrine will have shelf life beyond January next year.  As of now, Obama’s foreign policy achievements can be counted on finger tips: normalization with Cuba, resolution of the Iran nuclear issue, concord on climate change and the TTP.

The legacy shrinks significantly if one takes into account the geopolitical reality that the US policies toward Cuba and Iran had reached a dead end and the engagement with these two countries had simply become a necessity. When you do something by force of circumstances, do you count it as achievement?

On the other hand, Obama is also ending with a tattered legacy insofar as an air of great uncertainty today envelops the US’ relations with its two principal adversaries – China and Russia – and, secondly, he is leaving behind bleeding wounds in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where he must partially at least own up the failure of his policies.

Again, no matter what Obama says, historians are going to judge that his impetuous policies significantly contributed to the destruction of two countries – Syria and Ukraine. When Obama passes the buck to Russia on this score, an uneasy feeling wells up in the mind, as his judgment also becomes a matter of his political integrity and honesty.

Obama may be right that America’s international prestige is higher today than when he took over. But then, that is only to be expected, since his predecessor left America’s reputation in the world community in ruins.

On the whole, the 2016 State of the Union Address conveys the sense that Obama proposes to rest his oars on the foreign-policy front for the remaining period of his presidency. He sounds like a vendor who doesn’t expect more business, would much rather pull down shutters to hurry home to have supper, and retire. It is a pity because he still has promises to keep – promises that he made in those great speeches in Cairo and Prague in 2009 – on world disarmament and on a ‘new beginning’ between the Muslim world and America.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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