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President Obama appeared as a wobbly giant embarrassed by his own might, thus his seemingly apologetic passivity and indecisiveness. He refused to assume the mantle of leader of the free world, choosing to defer to others and to lead from behind. Anywhere he left a power void. And when he intervened, President Obama created the nightmarish reality of dirty wars and assassinations from his secret Kill List.

All facets of our perception of reality are intrinsically linked to our nervous systems, to the core of our psyche and body. Not only is this the reason why we always think we are right but also this is why we always seek inputs that only confirm our bias, perhaps another word for perception. If it informs our representation and understanding of social and political facts, perception also informs our perspective on personal and public relations. Needless to say, international relations are also a matter of perception. When on 2 May 2011, Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker revealed the Obama administration’s strategy on foreign policy as ‘leading from behind,’ a controversy ensued on who the unnamed White House source was but more importantly on various perceptions of the said foreign strategy. Lost in the enduring controversy was the forthright analysis of the Obama administration’s approach to foreign issues.

International relations are not entirely a zero-sum game; thus, layers of truth can be found in direct and indirect political outcomes. Accordingly, ‘leading from behind’, be it a doctrine or an attitude, can be assessed not only through an examination of outcomes but also through the perception of the President’s actions. In this regard, although various polls show a net gain on U.S. likeability around the world since the Bush regime, the other side of the coin reveals a hegemon perceived by many as weak and indecisive.

A perfect illustration of this perceived weakness is Obama’s infamous red line in Syria in which he promised U.S. military action if Bashar Hafez Al-Assad made use of chemical weapons, which he did in August 2013 in the suburbs of Damascus killing nearly 1,500 civilians, including more than 400 children.  Assad did so defiantly, and while video footages of deformed bodies could be seen around the world, President Obama did nothing but others took notice.

Within a year, Putin invaded Crimea and bolstered his support for Assad, shifting the momentum away from the rebels and sending the conflict into the downward spiral of chaos and desolation. In the words of his Secretary of State, John Kerry, Obama’s failure to enforce his red line against Assad “cost” the U.S. “significantly” in leading other nations to regard the White House as weak. Kerry concluded, "perception can often just be the reality. " [1]            

Personally, my honeymoon with President Obama only lasted the 2008 campaign cycle. I became alienated soon after his historic win by his Cabinet nominations. How could I reconcile his promises with his pick of Timothy Geithner as Secretary of Treasury, a Wall Street insider who participated in creating the financial bubble and its subsequent depression and now in charge of reforming and regulating the financial systems they exploited? Who did President Obama nominate as his top economic adviser? Lawrence Summers, Geithner’s mentor but also Henry Kissinger’s protégé. If in neoliberal circles, Summers is to economics what Kissinger is to international affairs, many others in progressive milieus accuse both of crimes against humanity. One who reads these last words may scoff at the severity of these accusations.

However, they are not unfounded. Indeed, in his outstanding book, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, James Ferguson tells the story of an internal memorandum dated 12 December 1991 that was later leaked to the press in which the chief economist of the World Bank, Lawrence Summers, argued that ‘the export of pollution and toxic waste to the Third World constitute an economically sound, ‘world welfare enhancing trade’.” Summers also suggested that carcinogens associated with specific cancers should not be of ‘concern in countries where people are not likely to live long enough’ and advised industrialized nations to dump their radioactive toxic nuclear waste on Africa’s shores since ‘the under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.’[2]

Not only did they follow his advice but it created one of the biggest health crises in Somalia, a country in the Horn of Africa with an Indian Ocean coastline and the perfect theatre of Summers’s ocean dumping ideas since it is a “failed state” with no central government. It also created one of the greatest modern myths, that of the Somali pirates, from which Western filmmakers could cash in with various films on the subject including Hollywood’s blockbuster Captain Phillips featuring Tom Hank; albeit the rise of the so-called Somali pirates coincided with illegal and toxic dumping and the resolve of Somalis to protect their families and land from these horrendous practices. If my perception of President Obama’s appointees is not enough to castigate his foreign affairs policies, let us examine their outcomes in light of the ‘leading from behind’ strategy.   

In Africa, I can say with certainty that President Obama led from behind. With a White House incumbent only one generation-removed from the continent, many had hoped for the best including increased support to pro-democratic and civil rights groups, strong involvement in continental affairs to compete against China’s engagement—which does not necessarily produce the best deals or scenarios, but more importantly to depart from the outdated doctrine of the U.S non-involvement in European strongholds in Africa. However, President Obama chose to lead from behind in Libya by following France and the U.K. in what many perceive in the continent as a Northern military intervention against the South.  At the very least, President Obama led from behind by deferring to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the strongest advocate of a military intervention in Libya. In Egypt, President Obama refused to support the embattled Hosni Mubarak only to see the Muslim Brotherhood gain power, to everyone’s anxiety, and then back to a military regime similar to the Mubarak years to the great dismay of the Arab Spring activists.

In the sub-Saharan part of the continent, China made some great strides amidst various human rights violations and impunity. In addition, France, Great Britain and other European nations consolidated their neocolonial bastions while the African ruling elites strengthened their grip on power and renewed the various nebulous networks that tie them to European power structures.

In the Middle East, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran quelled pro-democratic forces during uprisings which were marked by the White House’s reluctance to support these movements. Without ever assuming the responsibility of bringing back peace and security to countries ravaged by the U.S military interventions, the Obama administration withdrew troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. This led to the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq along with the elevation of Iran, calling the shots more and more in those two countries but also in Afghanistan.

In the Near East, particularly in Syria, the Obama administration led from behind and Russia from the front. Obama’s passivity and indecisiveness bolstered Al-Assad’s and Putin’s resolve and created the largest refugee crisis since World War II, which in turn produced new vigorous waves of nationalist and racist sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic, and thrust the U.K and the U.S into the populism of Brexit and Trump, respectively.

I am baffled every time I hear someone speak of President Obama as being anti-Israel simply because if he did enough to nurture U.S-Israel relations, it seems like he never even had any consideration for Palestine and its divided leadership. Many point out to his final days’ abstention on a United Nations Security Council Resolution as a proof of his anti-Israel stances; not only is the resolution purely symbolic, it condemns both Israeli settlements and Palestinian terrorism while merely reiterating international law.   

In Europe, the Obama administration was unable to reassure the Russians on the U.S European defense missile, or maintain the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia and Ukraine against Russians. Moreover, in an open microphone with Putin’s ally, Medvedev, President Obama was heard almost caving in to Putin by asking respite until after he secures his second term. How did Putin respond? He engaged in cyberwarfare to influence elections in Europe and in the U.S. Besides, many economies in the Old Continent have not yet fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and its absurd resolution, given that Obama’s policies made Wall Street and other financial marketplaces stronger and richer, and with no adequate oversight. 

The Obama White House may have ended torture, Guantanamo illegal detentions or open warfare but it replaced them with drone strikes, targeted killings, covert and dirty wars in various places like Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan etc. Who needs torture or Guantanamo when you can simply kill people in secret? I don’t know what is more repulsive than a president who keeps a secret Kill List which he consults every Tuesday, picks eventual targets and boasts to his aides about being good at killing. [4]

In 2013, I attended Jeremy Scahill’s book tour in Oakland, California. My friend and colleague Caroline Gikuru had invited me to the church in which he was presenting his Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. If the atmosphere in the nave was morbid, the facts from Obama’s dirty wars were chilling. Following Scahill’s speech, I became obsessed with the imprecision of these drone strikes and began tracking their civilian casualties or, in Hollywoodian parlance, collateral damage.[5] Today, drone strikes have been normalized and institutionalized by Obama’s Assassination Complex and his foreign policy regarding the war on terror, the ‘kill only’ policy he implemented which only fuels terrorism and alienates other states from the U.S.     

As mentioned in the introduction, there are two ways to assess policies: perception and outcomes. Perhaps the Iran Nuclear deal and the Paris Convention on Climate Change, for Obama’s undeterrable admirers, will overshadow the perceptions of his ‘leading from behind’ strategy. However, I doubt that, these two accomplishments, on a weighted scale, will overshadow the poor outcomes of Obama’s actions, conceal their grave implications for the future, and shroud the frivolity of his foreign policies’ approach.

I certainly don’t want to live in a world in which Russia and China—two of the world’s anti-democratic forces—are leading from the front and the U.S. from behind. The U.S. hegemony guarantees a world order that is imperfect and more often unjust but to paraphrase Churchill, it is the worst form of domination, except for all the others. From many indications, this outgoing administration never fully embraced the country’s hegemonic identity which one can do and still maneuver to create a just world—I am convinced.

President Obama appeared as a wobbly giant embarrassed by his own might; thus, his seemingly apologetic passivity and indecisiveness. He refused to assume the mantle of leader of the free world, choosing to defer to others and to lead from behind. Anywhere he left a power void, Russia, China, Iran, the Islamic State, The Muslim Brotherhood, and all other sorts of anti-democratic forces were ready to fill it with a Kafkaesque reality. When he intervened in some parts, President Obama created the nightmarish reality of dirty wars and assassinations from his secret ‘Kill List’.

Here is my perception of Obama’s troubled legacy on foreign issues and his ‘leading from behind’ strategy; maybe yours is different but political outcomes don’t lie: the world is less secure and stable because of President Obama’s failed foreign policies.

* Aimé Césaire Atchom holds an M.A. in International Studies and consults for international organizations. He researches and writes about global systems of control and inequalities with an emphasis on policies and their effects on world relations from local issues to humanity's most pressing problems.

End notes

[1] See John Kerry’s speech at the annual Saban Forum on December 4, 2016. For an account of his remarks, see  

[2] See James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World, Chapter 3: De-moralizing Economies: African Socialism, Scientific Capitalism, and the Moral Politics of Structural Adjustment; pp. 70-71. In 1992, Summers insisted during comments to the Economist that ‘the logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.’ See Economist 1992:66.       

[3] I do not condone piracy nor violence but I simply try to provide a counternarrative to the rugged Somali Pirate myth. One that represents these men and women as malign hijackers whereas many of them are benevolent with petty ships and archaic weapons who seek to keep large ships full of toxic nuclear waste away from their territorial waters and shores. Since there is no government to protect their families and land, many have took upon themselves to fight ocean dumping of radioactive nuclear waste. 

[4] See The Assassination Complex by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and his colleagues at The Intercept for an exposé of the Obama’s administration drone strikes and killing programs.

[5] You can follow the Bureau of Investigative Journalism @ for complete data on war drones and covert wars. 



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