Obama's global legacy: From Peace Prize to drone strikes

In part one of our look back at the Obama years, we examine his approach to military and foreign policy

Obama's global legacy: From Peace Prize to drone strikes

Picture by Pablo Martinez Monsivais AP/Press Association Images

"Where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can” - Barack Obama's 2009 victory speech

If a single image encapsulates the 2008 election campaign, it is the iconic ‘Hope’ poster designed by artist Shepard Fairey.

The campaign of then-senator Barack Hussein Obama was built on promises of progress and change, and while he may have inherited a financial crisis and two major wars, ‘hope’ was the defining and positive message that propelled him to victory.

Eight years later, we can finally look back at how well those hopes of 2008 match the reality of 2017. The Obama legacy is a complex one, made up of a series of compromises and missteps; successes and disappointments; encouraging progress and frustrating inaction; permanent victories mixed with exceedingly fragile ones.

Obama spent his years in offices battling with political opponents to try and secure the changes he wanted, and inevitably ended up breaking some promises along the way. He was a generally popular president, but he was divisive enough to contribute to the frustrations that led to the rise of Donald Trump - a president who is the complete antithesis of his predecessor.

Eight years is a very long time, and one person’s ‘success’ is another’s ‘failure’, but we can now look back at how some of his pledges became policy (or not, as the case often was), and how his impeccable oration translated to leadership. There were many more people involved in many of these choices and decisions than the president himself, of course, but history will primarily remember 2009-2016 as the Obama years.


“America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.  The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone of that leadership.  But U.S. military action cannot be the only - or even primary - component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” - Barack Obama, 2014

The Obama administration was at pains to paint the 44th President as a major change from his predecessor George W Bush. His White House team, for example, noted with pride that the administration ended the combat mission in Iraq. The nuclear deals with Russia and Iran have also been worn as badges of honour, while the death of Osama Bin Laden during a US operation in 2011 was seen as a high-profile symbolic achievement for the administration and indeed the country during Obama's first term.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr

Obama was notably awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, less than a year after he took office - but his two terms were far from entirely peaceful.

One of the most significant features of the US military in recent years was the huge increase in the number of air and drone strikes in countries such as Yemen and Pakistan as part of their ‘counterterrorism’ efforts. Figures released by the White House last year indicated that they believed between 64 to 116 civilians had been inadvertently killed in airstrikes, alongside around 2,500 members of terrorist groups.

However, some groups have estimated the actual number of civilian deaths could be much higher - the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, for example, estimates between 384 and 807 civilians killed.

Despite the gradual withdrawal of US troops in the first years of Obama’s presidency, there was further US intervention in Iraq in 2014 in response to the actions of ISIS. The US also intervened in Libya in 2011, and Obama has suggested a failure to prepare for the aftermath of the ousting of the then Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi was the "worst mistake" of his presidency.

As he left office, thousands of US troops remained in Afghanistan, while troops are stationed in parts of Africa and the Middle East amid ongoing efforts against ISIS. The US has continued more indirect intervention in other parts of the world.

While many will look on Obama’s military legacy as a notable change of direction compared to his predecessor, the eight years of Obama rule also reinforced the US’ position as a major global military power. Indeed, with the dramatic increase in drone warfare and other 'indirect' forms of combat, the Obama administration has helped usher in a new era of warfare.

Foreign policy

"In addition to holding Russia accountable for what it has done, the United States and friends and allies around the world must work together to oppose Russia’s efforts to undermine established international norms of behavior, and interfere with democratic governance" - Barack Obama, 2016

Many aspects of US foreign policy are tied up with the complex military issues mentioned above. Elsewhere, Obama made notable efforts to mend some troubled relationships, but rattled a few cages as well.

One the most historic achievements of recent years was the historic efforts to normalise relations between the US and Cuba after decades of tension. Alongside diplomatic actions such as the reopening of embassies and the easing of the trade embargo, Obama’s historic visit to Havana was the first by a sitting US president since 1928.

Although there have been mostly warm and cooperative relations between the US and Japan in recent decades, Obama made a significant symbolic gesture by becoming the first US president to visit the site of the Hiroshima bombing, after which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined Obama at the Pearl Harbour attack memorial in Hawaii. 

Barack Obama delivers remarks, accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. Picture by Carolyn Kaster AP/Press Association Images

A major accomplishment of the Obama administration was the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015, albeit a controversial one. The US and other world powers reached a deal for Iran to drastically reduce its nuclear programme in return for an easing of international sanctions on the country.

A few months after the deal (which has been criticised by Donald Trump) was reached, Obama observed: “For decades, our differences with Iran meant that our governments almost never spoke to each other [...] Americans coming home, an Iran that has rolled back its nuclear program and accepted unprecedented monitoring of that program - these things are a reminder of what we can achieve when we lead with strength and with wisdom; with courage and resolve and patience.”

Alongside this progress, there have also been fresh tensions. Despite the US remaining the most significant ally of Israel, the relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was contentious. In a sense, Obama adopted a middle ground: frustrating the international consensus to condemn Israeli settlements and its actions in Palestine (2011 saw the US continue to veto proposed UN Security Council resolutions on Israel & Palestine) but also occasionally adopting a more critical approach than we are likely to see from the incoming administration.

Trump, on the other hand, was a critic of the high-profile US decision to abstain from a major Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements late last year, and his administration has several staunchly pro-Israel members.

Under Obama, relations between the US and Russia notably deteriorated. Some commentators have likened it to a return to Cold War-style tensions between the two countries, a situation which has been exacerbated by the ongoing controversy over the US intelligence claims of Russian interference during the election campaign. However, on other occasions the two leaders maintained a seemingly functional working relationship.

Picture by Andrew Harnik AP/Press Association Images

While there has largely been a cordial relationship between the US and China, the Obama years saw significant disagreements over issues such as the contested territory in the South China Sea.

Obama has articulated his regrets and the challenges he faced over the conflict in Syria, which the US has (mostly) adopted a hands-off approach to - a decision that allowed other world powers such as Russia to get more deeply involved in the conflict. “It has been one of the hardest issues that I’ve faced as president,” Obama observed, suggesting that he felt partially responsible for the humanitarian situation in places such as Aleppo.

Ultimately, Obama was a president reluctant to get involved in difficult situations on the international stage, but he did not completely abandon the sort of approaches seen in recent US history. As Jeffrey Goldberg suggests in The Atlantic, “George W Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.”

Guantanamo Bay

“Instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained.” - Barack Obama, 2009

In January 2009 as one of his first acts in office, President Obama followed through on his campaign pledge and ordered the closure of Guantanamo Bay within a year. However, he was still attempting to achieve that goal in the final days of his second term.

Efforts to close the prison have faced strong opposition from Republicans, while it has been reported on a number of occasions that Obama has considered the possibility of using his executive powers to override the Congressional ban on bringing detainees to the US. Even in the final week of the Obama administration, prisoners were being transferred - 10 detainees, for example, are being temporarily taken in by Oman for ‘humanitarian reasons’.

As of writing, there were 45 detainees at the ‘Gitmo’ camp - a major decrease on the 242 being held when Obama took office. But during his final briefing, the former White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conceded that a full closure was unlikely to be achieved. “Once we’d [reached] the 30-day deadline for notifying Congress in advance of detainee transfers, the likelihood of succeeding in closing the prison was quite remote,” Mr Earnest said.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, has said he plans to “load [Guantanamo] up with some bad dudes”.


“Remember that whatever hardships the winter may bring, springtime is always just around the corner. And if they keep on arguing with you, just respond with a simple creed: Is féidir linn.” - Barack Obama, 2011

Photo: RollingNews.ie/GIS

While there’s certainly no shortage of Irish critics of Obama, the 44th US President was warmly welcomed during his one and only official state visit to Ireland. In a whirlwind visit on May 23rd 2011, he visited his great-great-great grandfather’s home in Moneygall, delivered a public address at College Green in Dublin, and met with Enda Kenny and the then-Irish president Mary McAleese.

Back in the US, Obama attempted to legislate to protect undocumented immigrants, including the Irish.

“The American Dream has always been the Irish-American Dream, and that’s why so many of you have been working with us to fix our broken immigration system,” he told a crowd during a St Patrick’s Day address with Enda Kenny in 2014. However, his immigration plan was blocked by the Supreme Court last year.

Although any future visits to Ireland are likely to come with significantly less fanfare, Obama has pledged to return to Ireland in the near future. Hopefully he will stay a little longer than 24 hours this time, and might even grab a quick bite to eat at Barack Obama Plaza.

In part two, we look back at how Obama fared in the US itself, as well as the environmental legacy he leaves behind

President Barack Obama amd First Lady Michelle Obama in Hayes Bar in his ancestral home of Moneygall, Co. Offaly, where he enjoyed a pint of Guinness. Photo: RollingNews.ie/GIS