The Gray Lady is nothing if not loyal, but even the editorial writers at the NYT can’t quite persuade themselves that after eight years of sheer genius, U.S. policy in Asia is a glorious success. The lede:
Laos provided fitting closure to President Obama’s 11th official trip to Asia, which ends Thursday. The stop, the first by an American president, acknowledged the devastation caused by American bombing during the Vietnam War and the millions of unexploded bombs that remained in Laos after the war. That visit and the Asian tour was the last of Mr. Obama’s broad efforts to strengthen engagements with countries in the region.
There is significant unfinished business in Mr. Obama’s Asia policy, including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that appears gridlocked in Washington and an expanding North Korean nuclear weapons program that he and other world leaders have failed to halt.
After the nod to the “unfinished business,” the NYT does its best to put a good face on things: China “helped” the U.S. secure the nuclear deal with Iran, and there was the “ratification” of what the Times still wants to pretend was a significant climate agreement at the G-20 summit.
But it’s hard to say that U.S.-China relations are as good as they were back in 2009, or that Asia is closer to lasting peace now than at the start of Obama’s first term. (Indeed, this editorial was written before the latest Nork nuke test.)
Of course, it’s also hard to say that Europe is in better shape than in 2009—or to be optimistic about Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Syria for that matter. The world got worse on Obama’s watch, and it got worse in ways that he didn’t anticipate—and was unable to deal with. Not all of these problems were the President’s fault, of course, but it all adds up to a distinctly uninspiring record. If you had predicted in 2009 that after two terms, Obama would be sending more U.S. troops to Iraq while having less influence over Iraq, would still be fighting in Afghanistan while having less hope of victory in Afghanistan, would be begging Putin to stop bombing civilians in Syria, would be helplessly watching China build and fortify new islands in the South China Sea, would be seeing Turkey move decisively away from democratic ideals, would be trying to stop ISIS from rampaging through Libya—well, most bien pensant liberals would have called you crazy at best. And, indeed, some true believers still think that it’s only a matter of time before all of the President’s moves are vindicated by history.
But as things stand now, the future doesn’t look pretty. As Obama enters his final months in office, isolationism is stronger in the United States than at any time since Pearl Harbor. Protectionists hope to dump a trade treaty with Asian partners that is a cornerstone of U.S. Pacific policy. Russian propaganda and disinformation is making deeper inroads into the United States than at any time since the Truman Administration. American allies are more worried about our strength of will and ability to stand by them than they have been in decades. There are more people displaced by war and terror than at any time since World War II. Right-wing populism is gaining ground across much of the developed world.
It will be interesting to see how the intellectual and journalistic establishments process the gap between what Obama said he would accomplish and what actually happened on his watch. It will also be interesting to see how our adversaries—Russia, China and Iran—move during the last months of the Obama Administration against a man they believe they can roll.