President Obama: saint or sinner?
Illustration Credit: Maddy Ross

Former President Barack Obama is often remembered as an inspiration, a great man, and a hero to so many people.

However, in many parts of the world, Obama’s presidency has been remembered as unjustifiably glorified. It is clear that he is nowhere near as overtly problematic or authoritarian as his successor. However, what is often ignored is Obama’s hidden reputation as the ‘Drone President’. Though the administration was certainly not overtly quiet about Obama’s hawkish foreign policy, the world has seemingly disregarded instead choosing to believe his administration’s symbolism of peace and unity.

To many Obama is the image of pacifism, and this is the ‘beauty’ of remote warfare. His accelerated use of drones compared to other administrations allowed him to continue to use violent military power whilst consistently speaking of peace. ‘Remote’ warfare is one of a number of terms that gets used in the media to describe the changing attitude towards war in recent years – yet it’s an attitude that undoubtedly maintains a hegemonic military presence.

While remote warfare can include a variety of measures, the most significant is the use of drones, due to the rapid increase in use and the ethical controversy it creates. A drone is officially known as an unmanned aerial vehicle. They have no pilot, and their crews are controlling them from elsewhere, meaning there is no risk of injury to any person. They have mainly been used for surveillance and ‘targeted killings’ of (mostly) suspected terrorists. There has never been much open discussion about the ins and outs of these killing machines that are used every single day. The number of civilians killed as a result of drone attacks is undocumented and perhaps truly unknown to anyone, but it goes without saying that the total is devastatingly high. Obama approved the use of drones repeatedly throughout his presidency.

However, irrespective of the gravity of the issue at hand Obama often joked about this secretive part of his job. His first reference to the drone strike programme came in the form of a joke. At the White House Correspondents Dinner on 2 May 2010, he warned American boy band the Jonas Brothers to stay away from his daughters: “Boys, don’t get any ideas. Two words for you: Predator drones. You will never see it coming. You think I’m joking?” 

Essentially what allowed Obama to commit such actions with an overarching discreteness was a poorly defined legal stance and little policy oversight on remote warfare. Famously Obama maintained a ‘kill list’ of individuals who he believed could be killed with the use of drones. There is a serious lack of political accountability, which needs to be addressed but seemingly will not be in the current climate.

While George W. Bush reportedly oversaw 48 drone strikes in Pakistan, Obama is estimated to have presided over a further 302 in the country. Furthermore,  the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released that Afghanistan received an average of 40 strikes a day from US drones in September 2019, and this is not an anomaly. 

His actions in the Arab Spring further demonstrate his overall disregard for civilian wellbeing in the Middle East. Up until 2011, Obama often backed the dictators, such as President Ben Ali of Tunisia. This was undoubtedly influenced by the abundance of oil in the Middle East, and so business interests lead to the failure of Western leaders to speak up on the autocratic regimes of the Middle East.

Obama’s legacy has transferred over to the Trump administration. Trump has undoubtedly seen Obama’s actions in the Middle East as being a key contribution to America’s empire-like global military presence. This is clear from his continued relations with the Middle East. Trump has been a major player in the Israel-Palestinian conflict with no real need, worsening the situation for many in Palestine with the mere incentive of maintenance of hegemony. The major global presence of the US and the display of presumed dominance comes from a self-perception of American Exceptionalism.

‘American Exceptionalism’ is the ideology that America has thought of itself as, and is widely perceived to be, exceptional. Such a self-view undoubtedly is linked to the circumstances of the country’s creation (i.e. breaking away from an empire to establish its own autonomous political regime which lead to countless modes of oppression). Though Obama is often tied to a more liberal American era, his extensive use of military power in the Middle East maintained the hegemony of the US which allowed for Trump’s election by maintaining an identity of exceptionalism within the American people.

Many celebrities, including Demi Lovato, have posted pictures of Obama with captions of longing for the former political leader. In the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, social media has seen an increasingly glorified representation of the Obama era and Obama’s ability as a leader compared to the current US leadership. However, there also seems to be a disregard for the civilian casualties that were the fault of the Obama administration.

Obama responded to the death of George Floyd with a lengthy statement on racism which Joe Biden responded to and corroborated – this idealisation of Obama perhaps being used as a tool for Biden to legitimise his campaign to many Obama supporters. Yet all this shows is that Obama and Biden clearly felt that some lives mattered more than others when they approved the killings of civilians. Furthermore, Biden has made it clear that he rejects some of the BLM movement’s proposals. Obama and Biden, major representatives for the ideology of the Democrats, have proved that their words and their actions do not align.

It must be noted that delegitimising Obama is one of the core political objectives of the Trump administration. That being said, we shouldn’t use the flaws in Obama to consequently defend Trump, but we also can’t use Trump’s obvious flaws to place Obama on an unjustified pedestal. It is nothing less than ironic that Trump has consistently othered and verbally attacked Obama yet also carried on with his extreme Middle East tactics, and even benefited from them. 

Whilst never declaring himself as an outright pacifist, Obama spoke of ending the war in Iraq in his campaign for the presidency. In many ways, Obama has kept his word.

He ended Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom—the combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that Bush bestowed to him—and drastically reduced U.S. troop levels from their peaks in both countries. However, at the end of his presidency the US military was seemingly involved in more countries than when Obama took office in 2009 – albeit slightly harder to definitively identify due to the increasing use of remote warfare. Obama spent more money on the US military than his predecessor, but U.S. troop casualties under Obama were significantly lower than under Bush.

However, the true number of deaths will never be known. Drones kill civilians and so the casualties in Obama’s name can never truly be quantified. There will be no justice for those who have died.