In 1980 Margaret Thatcher famously declared she was “not for turning”, and admirably stuck to her guns as prime minister through thick and thin. In contrast, Barack Obama’s presidency has been filled with the kinds of U-turns that would have made even Jimmy Carter blush.
President Obama’s decision last week to do a 180 degree about-turn on the issue of military tribunals is the latest policy reversal by a presidency that has become increasingly adept at making them, usually without batting an eyelid. Below, I outline ten of the biggest policy flip-flops by the Obama administration since taking office in January 2009, with an emphasis on foreign and security policy.
As this list shows, not all of Obama’s U-turns are bad. The top three flip-flops in US policy have been significant re-adoptions of Bush administration policies that were condemned by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election campaign, but which are now deemed essential for national security. These particular shifts have been welcome developments that have advanced US interests, and have been largely forced upon the White House by Congressional and public pressure.
Many of the other flip-flops in my list however have fundamentally opposed US interests, for example the decision to drop Third Site missile defences in Eastern and Central Europe in the face of Russian threats, the appalling appeasement of the genocidal regime in Sudan, and the trashing of traditional US alliances.
So here are my top ten, which do not include shifts in policy on domestic political issues, such as taxes, health care and the economy.
1. Keeping Guantanamo open
Undoubtedly Obama’s biggest flip-flop, his decision to keep the Guantanamo detention facility in operation has outraged his liberal supporters and ‘shocked’ European governments, who, needless to say, had overwhelmingly declined to take large numbers of dangerous terror suspects off the hands of the US government.
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama had condemned President Bush for supposedly “running prisons which lock people away without telling them why they’re there or what they’re charged with”, and signed an executive order shutting the facility down immediately upon taking office. Two years later Guantanamo still holds 172 detainees, and plays a vital role in the long war against Islamist terrorism.
2. Bringing back military tribunals for terror suspects
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama was a firm opponent of the Bush administration’s military tribunals, which he said “failed to establish a legitimate legal framework and undermined our capacity to ensure swift and certain justice.” But, as The New York Times reported last week, “President Obama on Monday reversed his two-year-old order halting new military charges against detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, permitting military trials to resume with revamped procedures but implicitly admitting the failure of his pledge to close the prison camp”, paving the way for 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators to face trial at Guantanamo.
3. Continuing renditions of terror suspects
In a 2007 Foreign Affairs article, Senator Obama gave a strong indication that he would end the Bush administration practice of rendition of terror suspects:
“To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people… This means ending the practices of shipping away prisoners in the dead of night to be tortured in far-off countries, of detaining thousands without charge or trial, of maintaining a network of secret prisons to jail people beyond the reach of the law.”
But, as The New York Times reported in August 2009, the Obama administration’s Interrogation and Transfer Task Force announced that it would retain renditions, but with what The Times referred to as “more oversight”.
4. Ordering military action in Libya without seeking Congressional authorisation
President Obama has shown a striking lack of consistency with regard to the question of Congressional authorisation and the use of force. In a 2007 interview with The Boston Globe, then Senator Obama declared:
“The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation. In instances of self-defense, the President would be within his constitutional authority to act before advising Congress or seeking its consent. History has shown us time and again, however, that military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.”
However, as president in March 2011, Barack Obama authorised military action against the Libyan regime without consulting Congress, a decision which drew heavy fire on Capitol Hill.
5. Dropping Third Site missile defences in order to appease the Russians
In his Prague speech in April 2009, President Obama pledged to move forward with the Bush-era plans for Third Site missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic:
“So let me be clear: Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile activity poses a real threat, not just to the United States, but to Iran’s neighbors and our allies. The Czech Republic and Poland have been courageous in agreeing to host a defense against these missiles. As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven.”
Just six months later however, the Obama administration surrendered to Russian demands, and dramatically dropped plans for Third Site. As I noted at the time, “this was a shameful abandonment of America’s friends in eastern and central Europe, and a slap in the face for those who actually believed a key agreement with Washington was worth the paper it was written on.”
6. Letting Sudan off the hook for the Darfur genocide
In 2004, Senator Obama was a prominent supporter of a “humanitarian intervention” to halt state-sponsored mass killing in Darfur, declaring in a speech that “we cannot, in good conscience, stand by and let the genocide continue.” He advocated tough UN sanctions against the brutal regime of Omar Hassan al-Bashir, which “should freeze the assets of the Sudanese government, its leaders and business affiliates; outlaw arms sales and transfers to Sudan; and prohibit the purchase of Chinese oil.”
However, as president, Obama dramatically changed his tune, extending the hand of friendship to Bashir, despite the fact the Sudanese government and its proxy Janjaweed Arab militias had butchered hundreds of thousands of people. As Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, retired Air Force Major General J. Scott Gration put it, describing the new strategy of appeasement:
“We’ve got to think about giving out cookies. Kids, countries — they react to gold stars, smiley faces, handshakes, agreements, talk, engagement.”
7. Backing a federal Europe after defending national sovereignty
In July 2009 the president made a striking defence of the principle of national sovereignty in a speech he gave at the New Economic School in Moscow. President Obama spoke in eloquent terms of:
“America’s interest in an international system that advances cooperation while respecting the sovereignty of all nations. State sovereignty must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy.”
His administration, however, has done all it can to advance the pooling of national sovereignty in Europe, and the rise of a European superstate. In her meeting with EU Foreign Policy chief Baroness Ashton in January, Hillary Clinton described the Lisbon Treaty, a blueprint for a European federal superstate, as “a major milestone in our world’s history”, and Obama’s Ambassador to London, Louis Susman, told a group of MEPs in Brussels that “all key issues must run through Europe.”
8. Pledging to restore America’s standing in the world but lowering it instead
A key foreign policy theme of the Obama presidential election campaign was the notion that President Bush had damaged America’s image on the world stage, with his supposedly ‘cowboy’ policies. In the words of a campaign document, “Barack Obama and Joe Biden will restore America’s standing in the world by providing a new American leadership to meet the challenges of a new century”.
As president, however, Obama has done exactly the opposite, insulting key allies such as Great Britain, Israel and Poland, projecting weak leadership, and undermining the standing of the United States as the world’s only superpower. As I’ve noted before:
No American president in modern times has invested less effort in maintaining US alliances than Barack Obama. Whether it is siding with Marxists in Honduras against pro-American forces, condemning Israel, throwing the Poles and Czechs under the bus, or trashing the Anglo-American Special Relationship, the Obama administration has gone out of its way to kick its allies in the teeth while kowtowing to America’s enemies. For a president who boasted in his election campaign of restoring America’s “standing” in the world, Obama has done a spectacularly bad job of preserving friendships with Washington’s closest friends.
9. Dumping Mubarak in Egypt after calling him a “stalwart ally”
Big picture foreign policy strategy has not been a forté of this administration, as demonstrated by its inconsistent policy on Egypt and the Middle East. In an interview with the BBC’s Justin Webb in June 2009, when asked if he viewed President Mubarak as an authoritarian ruler, President Obama declared:
“No, I tend not to use labels for folks. I haven’t met him; I’ve spoken to him on the phone. He has been a stalwart ally, in many respects, to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region, but he has never resorted to unnecessary demagoguing of the issue and has tried to maintain that relationship. So I think he has been a force for stability and good in the region.”
20 months later, the White House emphatically called for Mubarak to go.
10. Killing the NASA manned space programme
In August 2008, Senator Obama announced, as The Washington Post noted, “a detailed comprehensive space plan that includes $2 billion in new funding to reinvigorate NASA”. In the president’s words:
“As president, I’ll make our space program a priority again by devoting the attention and resources needed to not only inspire the world with feats of exploration but also improve life here on Earth.”
But, as The Washington Post reported in March 2010, President Obama later shattered the dreams of the NASA community with a decision “to kill NASA’s Constellation program, crafted during the Bush administration with an ambitious goal of putting astronauts back on the moon by 2020.” In the words of Harrison Schmitt, a former US senator and Apollo 17 astronaut: “It’s bad for the country. This administration really doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism.”