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Historians begin to weigh in on Barack Obama

Historians begin to weigh in on Barack Obama
Published 14 Jan 2015   Follow @BrendanTN_

The legacy pieces on Barack Obama's presidency are already beginning to roll out.

Over the weekend, New York magazine published a rather interesting one. A questionnaire was given to 53 American historians in which they were asked how they believe the Obama Administration will be viewed 20 years from now on issues such as foreign policy, race and domestic policy achievements.

A few of the best on Obama's foreign policy: 

Obama will be viewed as the first president to take seriously the notion that the dominant role America has played in the world both after World War II and again after the end of the Cold War cannot be maintained over the long term. In that sense, he was ahead of his time. – James Mann

We’re just now beginning to see how Obama has been moving the country into a postimperial foreign policy, which involves a willingness to talk to partners and enemies alike. The right wanted to keep military force in Iraq and demanded we put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Instead, we’ve seen Obama do a jujitsu with Iraqi internal politics, turning lemon into power-sharing lemonade, and work with the Europeans behind the scenes. I haven’t heard anyone talk about China’s move toward soft power, and what a vital pivot away from aggressive military brinkmanship this represents. But it’s entirely to Obama’s credit. He has forged military and economic alliances with China’s neighbors even as he has continued to engage the Chinese leadership, telling them the U.S. supports China’s “peaceful rise.” The enormously significant announcement of China-U.S. cooperation on global warming is an indication of how Obama’s quiet “talking” diplomacy has born results. – Jeffrey Alexander

Obama’s foreign policy commenced with soaring but uncertain rhetoric. When the lighter elements boiled away, what was left was a coping strategy, which proved to be more about coping than about strategy. Historians will praise Obama’s foreign policy as better than Bush’s, which it was not, but that will be their own way of coping with the long, disappointing post-Reagan era of American statecraft. – Charles Kesler

His legacy in the Middle East: [fold]

Obama came to the presidency with savvy instincts in foreign affairs. And he succeeded in winding down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were taking a severe toll on America in terms of both blood and treasure. But then he got dragged back into the Middle East by the so-called experts in the foreign-policy Establishment who whined incessantly that he was not doing enough about the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. And yet, the tragedy is that two decades from now, no one will remember ISIS or whatever happens to the brutal Assad regime. But they will remember what Obama failed to do in Israel/Palestine. – Kai Bird

It is probably not accidental that the Arab Spring first occurred during a relative lull in American intervention in the Middle East. However badly Obama responded to those democratic movements once they broke out, prior to that he had turned American politics from foreign policy to domestic. That move left greater degrees of freedom for democratic movements to put pressure on their own autocratic governments without being smeared with the accusation of being agents of imperialism. That can hardly have been Obama’s intention, but it does seem to me a consequence of his foreign policy at that time, and a factor that will be clearer in time and can fairly be judged as positive. - Alexander Gourevitch

And on 'What we will remember?'

Obama’s establishment of the U.S. Cyber Command in 2009 will likely mark the moment that U.S. global-force projection began a historic shift from the Cold War’s heavy-metal military of aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, and tanks to an agile array via aerospace and cyberspace. - Alfred McCoy

It is too soon to say right now what will come of Obama’s “pivot” or rebalancing of American foreign policy to Asia — but for sure, historians will see that during Obama’s administration, the old China policies of the past four decades were quietly, gradually put to rest. – James Mann

Good historians pay attention not only to what political figures actively accomplish — wars won, legislation passed — but to what they prevent from happening, a negative but real accomplishment. By that measure, Barack Obama accomplished a lot. – Mark Lilla

Of course we must be careful in predicting what historians of the future will make of the still continuing Obama Administration. Historians interpret the past through the lens of their own time. The reopening of relations with Cuba may be a stand-out. But, it does seem to me that whatever the legacy of Barack Obama's presidency, it will be a deeply complex one for both conservative and liberal historians alike.

Photo courtesy of Official White House Photo/Pete Souza

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