Obama and Jimmy Carter

Barack Obama’s first speech to the UN was filled with the giddy hopes that won him the presidency in the first place. “More than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared,” he told world leaders in 2009.

Five years later, it was a greyer and more sombre Mr Obama who warned the UN this week about the “generational task” of defeating Islamist militants in the Middle East, two days after he launched his first air strikes in Syria. “The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” he said.

Replete with George W Bush-style rhetoric about a “network of death” and “this brand of evil”, Mr Obama’s speech this week was an effort to reboot his flagging presidency.

In political terms, the more martial Mr Obama was trying to shake of the Jimmy Carter aura that has been hanging over his White House; the steady corrosion of leverage at home and influence abroad in the face of Middle East turmoil that slowly leaves an incumbent looking impotent.

From the foreign policy perspective, Mr Obama conducted what amounted to a genuine pivot in his approach to the world – embracing the central point of many of his critics who insist that a leadership vacuum has emerged in the world that only the US can fill.

A president who only five months ago described his foreign policy goals as “you hit singles, you hit doubles” warned Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria that they “should leave the battlefield while they can”.

The comparison with former president Carter is one that Republicans have made ever since Mr Obama took office. Mitt Romney, his 2012 challenger, regularly accused him of being “worse than Carter” but the charge never stuck, in part because of the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden.

Yet over the past year, amid Vladimir Putin’s challenge in Ukraine and the rise of the Islamist militants of Isis in Iraq and Syria, the Carter label has started to be used more often, and not just by Republicans. Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champion turned democracy activist, complained this year that “Carter looks like Churchill in comparison” with Mr Obama.

Until recently, opinion polls backed up the president’s instinctive foreign policy caution. However, with one September poll showing that 62 per cent of voters disapprove of his handling of international affairs, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd warned that Mr Obama was “on the precipice of doing Jimmy Carter-like damage to the Democratic brand on foreign policy”.

Mr Obama’s decision to use air power in Syria is a decisive moment in his presidency because it runs against his instinct that US military power can achieve little in a sectarian civil war. It follows three years of criticism from a large part of the Washington foreign policy establishment which argued that the US has a responsibility to try and shape the outcomes of a conflict at the heart of the Middle East.

Martin Indyk, a former ambassador who was the Obama administration’s chief negotiator in the recent effort to revive Israel-Palestinian peace talks, said this week that the administration “withdrew gradually” from the Middle East after “deciding that the burden of trying to create a new order was too much for the US to achieve”.

But he added that we “are now seeing the consequences of destabilising forces taking advantage of a vacuum of leadership” which has left the US “with no choice but to re-engage”.

David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official and chief executive of Foreign Policy, says it is not yet clear if Mr Obama has changed his approach.

“If you take the rhetoric at face value, there has been a substantial adjustment in the administration’s foreign policy,” he says. “The question is whether this is just an optical adjustment, to keep a lid on the problem until the president leaves office, or if it is really the start of a decisive new strategy.”

Mr Obama has yet to articulate effectively how his campaign against Isis will not benefit the Syrian regime, which he wants to see deposed or Iran, which supports the government in Baghdad. It is not clear if the US will have a viable military partner in Iraq, let along in Syria where the current plan is to arm only 5,000 rebels.

In the process, Mr Obama has opened himself up to the sort of mission creep that could undermine the political support he currently has for the campaign against Isis.

“They’re not going to be able to be successful against Isis strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces,” said Robert Gates, Mr Obama’s first defence secretary. “So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy.”

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