Obama's final year: a CounterVortex scorecard
Our last annotated assessment of Barack Obama's moves in dismantling, continuing and escalating (he has done all three) the oppressive apparatus of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) must inevitably be viewed in light of the current countdown to the death of democracy and the imminent despotism of Donald Trump. The fact that the transition is happening at all is a final contradiction of Obama's legacy. He is fully cooperating in it, even as his own intelligence agencies document how the election was tainted. Following official findings that Russia meddled in the elections, the White House has slapped new sanctions on Russia—deporting 35 Russian officials suspected of being intelligence operatives and shutting down two Russian facilities in New York and Maryland, both suspected of being used for intelligence-related purposes. The latest bizarre revelation—that Russian intelligence can blackmail Trump with information about his "perverted sexual acts" involving prostitutes at a Moscow hotel—broke just hours before Obama delivered his Farewell Address in Chicago. The speech was surreally optimistic in light of the actual situation in the country, and contained only a few veiled swipes at Trump. The best of them was this: "If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves."
Nonetheless, we offer the following annotated assessment of which Obama moves over the past year have been on balance positive, neutral and negative, and arrive at an overall score:
Betrayal of Syria
What had been a US tilt to Assad in the Syrian war turned into open collaboration with the Assad regime after Russia intervened, with the Free Syrian Army constrained from fighting the genocidal regime and ordered to instead fight ISIS as the price of receiving US arms. Even while thusly appeasing Russia, Obama simultaneously rejected autonomy for the Syrian Kurds to appease Russia's rival Turkey. With the recent Russia-Turkey deal, all the Great Powers have now betrayed the Syrian Revolution. The US is currently iced from the Russia-led "peace" talks, but this could change when Putin's buddy Trump takes over. Whether the US is invited to join it or not, the "peace" is all too likely to be an imperial carve-up that continues to deny the Syrians democracy and self-determination. In any case, the Syrian revolutionaries were sold down the river by Obama. This, and not his insufficient and conditional backing of them, is his real crime. Negative
Blank check for Saudi war in Yemen
Amid the Obama administration's hypocritical lectures and hand-wringing about Russia's aerial carnage in Syria, the US continues to have military advisors directly supporting the Saudis' air war in Yemen, and continues to provide arms to Saudi Arabia—above the protests of international human rights groups. Negative
Drone wars drone on
The White House finally released figures on the kill count from Obama's drone war last July, finding that up to 116 civilians were killed by drone and other US strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya since 2009. But this is significantly lower than estimates by human rights groups, which range as high as 1,000 killed just under Obama. Whatever the true figure may be, Obama massively escalated the drone warfare initiated by Bush in 2002. That Obama may have conceived this antiseptic form of killing as an alternative to sending in US ground forces makes it no less criminal. Negative
Gitmo still open
Despite the draw-down of detainees to third countries, Obama did not keep his pledge to close the military prison at Guantánamo Bay. Currently, 55 prisoners remain there, with 19 cleared for release. But now barred by law from transferring the remaining 36 to US territory, Obama is effectively constrained from closing the prison camp. We must acknowledge Obama's efforts to close the facility in the face of Republican intransigence—but they were way too weak, late and cautious. Now the notorious facility will be handed over to Donald Trump—who has boasted openly of his plans to fill it up with "bad dudes" and to bring back waterboarding and a "hell of a lot worse." This is a dismal, shameful Negative.
Obama continues to maintain ties with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan even as he is now clearly establishing a dictatorship, and the White House has had but the most perfunctory criticisms. US relations with Turkey are strained, but this has more to do with US backing of the Syrian Kurds than any attempt to rein in Erdogan—even as the incipient despot unleashes state terror on the Kurds within Turkey. The US has ironically lifted sanctions on Burma just as its military is approaching a genocidal threshold in its campaign against the Muslim Rohingya minority—the "democratic transition" notwithstanding. India's Narendra Modi may be less autocratic and repressive than Erdogan, but he is still an ethno-nationalist reactionary with a genocidal past—and Obama's friendly relationship with him is unseemly. The administration has had some criticisms for the bloody Rodrigo Duterte, causing a rift with the Philippines—but it is all too likely to be healed under Trump. Negative
Pressure on Israel —too little, too late
Here we must note the first of a few items that fall into the category of last-minute damage-control before turning over power to Trump-fascism. Last month, the US abstained from the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 2334, calling on Israel to cease all settlement activities in occupied Palestinian territory. It marked the first time the US failed to veto a resolution against West Bank settlements since 1980. This is welcome, but it comes at the eleventh hour, when Obama had nothing to lose. We also can't help but wonder if the White House would have vetoed the resolution had Hillary Clinton won the election. (A similar resolution was vetoed by the US in 2011.) We must make note of Obama's unprecedented $38 billion military aid package for Israel, approved last year. That alone betrays the Orwellian nature of all the relentless demonization of Obama as "anti-Israel." We're tempted to refrain from a "negative" rating just in recognition of this late progress. But we can't do it. Negative
Colombia's peace process with the FARC rebels is a genuine sign of hope, and Washington has not opposed it (at least). President Juan Manuel Santos met at the White House with Obama last February to mark 15 years since the initiation of the Plan Colombia aid package. The two of course congratulated each other on the "success" of the program—despite its massive toll in human rights and ecological destruction. They also discussed a new aid program that Obama proposed be called "Peace Colombia," to help implement reforms mandated by the peace deal. But there is a continued focus on drug enforcement, raising the prospect of a continued US-directed war against remnant armed factions. Meanwhile, to little fanfare, Obama signed into law the ominous Transnational Drug Trafficking Act—further extending the global reach of US narcotics enforcement. We are going to take a generous wait-and-see attitude and go with Neutral.
Opening to Cuba —despite contradictions
Last March saw Obama's historic first visit to Cuba by a US president since the 1959 revolution. We've noted some inevitable contradictions about the renewed ties between Washington and Havana. This places Cuban dissidents in an odd position: seizing on Obama's opening to press demands for greater freedom allows activists to be more easily painted by the regime as pawns of imperialism. But are Cubans not supposed to press for political freedoms now because the US is seeking rapprochement with the regime? We'd like to see more grappling with this question. Nonetheless, on balance this is a clear Positive.
Drug war commutations
Continuing with his campaign of clemency for federal drug offenders who were imprisoned under outdated sentencing laws, Obama in November commuted the sentences of 79 more inmates, bringing the total commutations throughout his two terms to to more than 1,000. This number far surpasses that of the previous 11 presidents combined. With year-end pardons and commutations, the figure now stands at 1,324. Yes, we know: with some 6,000 pending clemency applications, and nearly half of the approximately 200,000 federal prisoners doing time for drug offenses, this has to be seen in perspective. Still, some progress is better than none, and at least Obama has made this an issue. Positive
Formal end to 'Muslim registry' program
This is another one to file under last-minute damage-control, but we'll take what we can get. Giving credit where it is due, Obama just issued an order formally dismantling the suspended National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), meaning Trump would have to start over from scratch in reviving a similar "registry." Positive
Dakota Access pipeline blocked —for now
This one is both last-minute damage-control and a case of direct action getting the goods. This never would have happened if not for the hundreds of brave souls who camped out and faced police repression on the frigid plains of North Dakota for weeks this past fall. But the US Army Corps of Engineers last month (clearly at White House behest) formally denied the last remaining easement needed to drill under the Missouri River and complete construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This may well be promptly reversed under Trump, but for the moment the project is halted. Positive
'Permanent' ban on Arctic offshore drilling?
And more last-minute damage-control. Obama in December issued an executive order declaring the vast majority of US waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans "indefinitely off limits" to future offshore drilling. He is invoking the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which supposedly grants him this authority. Republicans, of course, are denying he has the authority, and are calling for Trump to reverse the order upon taking office. Still, Obama did what he could. Positive
Overall score: 75% Negative
Last year's score was also 75% Negative