C-SPAN recently released the 2017 Presidential Historian Survey, in which a group of presidential historians rank all previous presidents from best to worst. President Obama did extremely well, coming in as the 12th best president of all time. Obama was commended for his handling of the economy, public persuasion, and (the most unsettling reason) his moral authority. Survey respondents seemed to have overlooked a simple fact, though, which should shatter any image of moral authority from the Obama tenure in office: his destructive and inhumane foreign policy.
Obama’s record on warfare is, frankly, abysmal. It’s particularly galling considering that he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped over 26,000 bombs on seven different countries; that’s three bombs every hour. The campaign in Libya destabilized the country in a vein similar to the US invasion of Iraq. He killed a 16 year-old American citizen living in Yemen, and recently increased US involvement in the Yemeni civil war — a war that is starving the country’s citizens. And there is significant skepticism that his administration came even close to telling the truth about the amount of civilians killed in drone strikes over the last eight years.
This does not sound, at all, like a president that retained any semblance of moral authority. To the group’s credit, they gave him “below-average” marks in international relations. It seems like a generous standard, though, for an administration that had a secret “kill list” and caused foreign teenagers to dream about their own deaths by drone strikes.
Moreover, looking at the larger ranking reveals that inhumane foreign policy decisions don’t seem to count against former presidents all that much. One consultant on the ranking project said the survey identifies “a golden age of the American presidency” beginning with FDR, and going through Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, and LBJ. FDR, ranked 3rd, rounded up over 100,000 Japanese-Americans and put them in concentration camps during WWII. Truman, ranked 6th, annihilated hundreds of thousands of civilians with atomic bombs. Kennedy, ranked 8th, tried to invade Cuba, and got the ball rolling in Vietnam, which his successor LBJ,ranked 10th, escalated into a full-blown, disastrous conflict. Bill Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq probably killed more than half a million children, and he’s ranked 15th. William McKinley is right behind him at 16th, despite the thousands dead from the US occupation of the Philippines. George W. Bush, while still being in the bottom half of the ranking, actually improved by three spots from the last survey in 2009.
It’s understandable that there are competing priorities when determining any kind of ranking, particularly a presidential one. When judging by a 21st century sensibility, history is filled with really bad people doing bad things. Yet, Barack Obama was a 21st century president. Some of his last minute actions were commendable, such as commuting sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, or commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence. But his efforts in foreign policy, like many of his predecessors, were not. The academic discipline of history falls within the broader category of the humanities. One would think that historians would give significant weight to such broadly inhumane practices like the dropping of thousands upon thousands of bombs.
One could possibly be convinced that there are other reasons why President Obama should be so highly ranked amongst former presidents. But his foreign policy was so destructive and illiberal that moral authority should not be one of them.