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Adrift in a sea of violence: Obama’s legacy, and the prospect of a Trump or Clinton presidency

Very little of what Barack Obama promised to achieve in foreign affairs has come to pass. Reuters/Jim Bourg

Adrift in a sea of violence: Obama’s legacy, and the prospect of a Trump or Clinton presidency

Very little of what Barack Obama promised to achieve in foreign affairs has come to pass. Reuters/Jim Bourg

As the first African-American US president, Barack Obama assumed office in January 2009 amid public euphoria and high expectations of greater racial harmony and reduced gun violence at home and a more stable and peaceful international order. The mood was best encapsulated by his electrifying slogan:

Yes, we can.

But nearly eight years later a more apt description might be:

No, we can’t.

Police shootings

Recent police use of deadly force in Louisiana and Minnesota was broadcast widely. Law enforcement officers were subsequently executed in Dallas.

Police fatally shot nearly 1,000 people in 2015 and have killed just under 500 in the first six months of 2016. This is more than twice the average rate of police killings reported by the FBI in previous years.

Gun violence more broadly points to the same dismal picture. Between 2010 and 2014, firearms used on US soil accounted for 164,821 deaths. The total number of gun deaths and violent injuries in 2015 was estimated to be close to 100,000.

Violence abroad

The international landscape is no more reassuring.

Obama, who opposed the Iraq invasion, promised among other things to bring the troops home, drastically reduce US involvement in international armed conflicts, close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, develop a more co-operative relationship with Russia and China, bring about a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and significantly advance the prospects of nuclear disarmament.

Very little of this has come to pass.

By 2011, the US had withdrawn ground combat forces from Iraq, but it continued to train, advise and equip Iraqi security forces. However, the subsequent advances of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria led the Obama administration to embark upon a second military intervention.

Over the last two years US forces in Iraq have steadily increased. It presently exceeds 5,000 service members.

To rescue the faltering war effort in Afghanistan Obama approved in the course of 2009 an additional 17,000 troops, on top of the 36,000 US troops and 32,000 NATO military personnel already there.

However, the much-heralded surge failed to prevent the Taliban’s resurgence. More than 5,000 Afghan troops died in 2015; the Taliban is in a stronger position than at any time since 2001.

The Syrian conflict has displaced more than 11 million people. Reuters/Muhammad Hamed

In 2011, the Obama administration led yet another military intervention, this time in Libya. And it has since become embroiled in the Syrian civil war, which has left more than 300,000 dead and 11 million people displaced.

The US has also assisted or at least turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia’s 2011 intervention in Bahrain and is presently complicit in the ruinous war in Yemen. In the meantime, any thought of bringing Israel and Palestine to the negotiating table appears to have been mothballed.

US relations with Russia have spiralled downward. NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe has brought it right to Russia’s doorstep. Its decision to deploy ground-based missile defence systems in Romania and Poland has provoked Russian fury.

Russia has sought to reassert its great power status by applying military pressure on Ukraine, annexing Crimea and projecting its air power on the Syrian conflict. Russia and the US are now intent on retaining and modernising their nuclear arsenals, and thwarting international efforts to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons.

With tensions rising in the South China Sea, the US, though not a party to the sovereignty dispute, is providing increased military support to several of the Southeast Asian claimants. It is strengthening its alliance arrangements with South Korea, Japan and Australia, and dramatically expanding its naval presence. The number of ship patrol days is expected to rise from more than 700 in 2015 to well over 1,000 days in 2016.

What for the future?

The Obama administration is not single-handedly responsible for the explosion of violence at home and abroad. Congressional obstruction and powerful lobbies have restricted Obama’s capacity to act.

Similarly, the role of other powerful countries, regional players and parties in various conflicts has exacerbated tensions and limited possibilities for negotiation, mediation, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.

But sustained intellectual and political leadership and an informed and engaged citizenry are singularly lacking in the US. This dual failure is not peculiar to the US, but is especially troubling given American influence in the world.

Ominous clouds are gathering as the threadbare presidential campaign stutters its way to the finishing line. Neither Republican Donald Trump nor Democrat Hillary Clinton can be accused of presenting a coherent picture of the culture of violence that grips the US and much of the world.

Donald Trump advocates strict restrictions on Muslim immigration to the US. Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

On the home front, Trump proposes the erection of a wall to prevent Mexican immigration, proffers justification for police use of lethal violence, and upholds the gun culture that holds sway in his country.

Clinton has confined herself to cautious criticism of police actions and proposals for more careful scrutiny of gun ownership.

On the critical question of the “war on terror”, both candidates have said little of substance. In seeking to cultivate anti-Muslim sentiment, Trump has advocated a ban on Muslims entering the country – subsequently rebadged as “extreme vetting” – and a dose of torture.

Clinton’s line is generally more of the same approach that has yielded pitiful results and helped create mayhem in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria and Somalia – to name only the most obvious sites of civilian slaughter, destruction of cultural heritage and economic ruin.

On the Middle East’s gaping wound, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton offers no more than a firm guarantee of Israel’s security.

And on NATO’s global expansion, the US “pivot to Asia” and its implicit containment of China, the prospect of a renewed nuclear arms race, soaring global military expenditures (almost US$1.7 trillion in 2015), unprecedented levels of global forced displacement (65.3 million people displaced by war and persecution in 2015), and the fastest-growing global crime, human trafficking, there is a deafening silence from both pretenders to the throne.

The American political class is on the cusp of dangerous irrelevance. Those searching for creative solutions to endemic violence, for ways of revitalising civil society and reforming the UN, for new forms of governance that enhance mutual trust and habits of collaboration, would do well to look elsewhere.


Joseph Camilleri will deliver in September four evening public lectures on the issues raised in this article at St Michael’s, Collins Street, Melbourne.