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If Obama had never become president, what would U.S. foreign policy look like today? [Commentary]

President Barack Obama's foreign policy over the past six years has come under attack from progressives and conservatives alike. From the progressive point of view, there is much to criticize: the killing of civilians by drones, excessive surveillance here and abroad in the name of national security, supporting corrupt regimes when it suits. For this and more, I have opposed Mr. Obama's foreign policy. But, in the early days of the new year, it might be good to take a moment to recognize that however disappointing President Obama's policies may be, it could have been a lot worse if any of his key opponents — Republican or Democrat — were sitting in the White House today.

If a Republican were president — say Sen. John McCain, who lost to Obama in 2008, or Mitt Romney, who failed to unseat him in 2012 — he would have found a way to keep as many as 30,000 American combat troops in Iraq, making Iraq a violent client state rather than the distant disaster it is today. Troops would continue coming home in coffins, and Iraq would feel the wrath of continued air strikes and raids. If Hillary Clinton had won the primary in 2008 and became president, she would have rallied to keep combat troops in Iraq, too — perhaps only half as many as President McCain. But backlash from continued occupation — no matter the numbers — would be persistent and severe.

If a Republican or Ms. Clinton were president, American troops would still be in Afghanistan, but a higher number of them than the current 50,000 troops there, with slightly reduced numbers for decades to come. Significant numbers of American troops would have continued to suffer casualties monthly.

Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis may or may not have been averted under a different president. But if a Republican were in the White House, American troops would likely be in Syria right now and President Bashar Assad and his goons toppled from power. This would have pleased many Americans, including some liberals who see Syria as a humanitarian disaster in which intervention cannot be avoided.

Yet like Iraq and Afghanistan, there would be heavy American casualties, with the Syrian death toll in the tens of thousands. The fighting would have spilled into Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan — far more than even today. Possibly the war would have also engulfed Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. Iran might become a target of a sustained bombing and possibly a military invasion, pleasing the war hawks in Congress, Israel and American friends in the Gulf — all whom have long pushed for intervention there.

On the other hand, if Hillary Clinton were president, she would have, at a minimum, established a no-fly zone over Syrian air-space and likely dragged the U.S. into a land war in the region, with similar outcomes just described under a Republican administration.

If a Republican were in power during the Egyptian revolution in 2011, he might have supported the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, but he would've done everything he could to prevent the election of any new president hailing from the Muslim Brotherhood. And if Mohamed Morsi had won anyway, the American president would have instituted policies to undermine him. In retrospect, this policy would have pleased many Americans, and certainly the Egyptian military, too. In fact, the outcome would not be dissimilar to what is happening in Egypt today. But with flagrant Republican meddling, the U.S. would be blamed more directly for the political crisis there, fomenting more terrorism and an increase in anti-Americanism overall.

In short, the Middle East and Afghanistan would be hotbeds of wars and hostilities if the outcome of the 2008 or 2012 elections had been any different. In that context, progressives should take a deep breath and appreciate President Obama for avoiding the conflicts his opponents would have blundered straight into, or in the case of Iraq, continued to fight. It is important to remember this discussion when Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016.

Adil E. Shamoo is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, and the author of: Equal Worth — When Humanity Will Have Peace. His email is ashamoo@som.umaryland.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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