eyes on the U.S.

Obama's Foreign Policy Is Most Like This Former President's

Barack Obama is governing in a much different world than his predecessors. How will his foreign policy be remembered? Who does he most emulate? Hint: It's not Jimmy Carter.

Presidents Bush, Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter back in 2009
Presidents Bush, Obama, Bush, Clinton and Carter back in 2009
Alain Frachon


PARIS — If foreign policy were a beauty pageant, President Barack Obama would not be sporting a crown. The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner gets a poor score from voters at home, and one from abroad that's not much better. But it's probably not justified.

Among his predecessors, Obama is most often compared to the Democrat Jimmy Carter, whose four years in the White House from 1976 to 1980 are often described as a catastrophe. Many believe the devout Baptist from Georgia degraded the status of the United States on the international stage. He is said to have personified of a sort of depressive softness of which America's enemies, from the Soviet Union to Islamic Revolution's Iran, have taken brutal advantage.

It was necessary to elect a flamboyant former California governor and Hollywood star, Ronald Reagan, to reestablish the image that America likes to have of itself: that of the light shining on the hill, an "exception" among the nations.

Before he launched his bombing campaign against ISIS, the most severe criticism of Obama was that he was on the road to "advanced Carterization." In the polls, a majority of Americans reproached him for giving the impression of a passive and powerless America facing the perils of the day: a vengeful and increasingly powerful Russia, and the regional imperialism of a China eager to ensure its domination in southeast Asia.

But the comparison with Jimmy Carter falls flat, and for good reason. The 39th president of the United States left a solid balance sheet in terms of foreign policy. Without his assiduous mediation, Israel and Egypt — even by the admission of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin and President Anwar al-Sadat — would never have finalized the landmark Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979. And the end of the great wars between Israel and its neighboring states was not just any achievement.

When history is written

The Americans, who love rehabilitating what they have torn down, will one day bury Jimmy Carter as a great president. After all, they hallowed Richard Nixon on the day of his death, on April 22, 1994, and he was a major foreign policy president who was chased from the White House halfway through his term over Watergate.

Those who accuse Obama of "Carterization" are in general those who praise his political opposite, Reagan, a charmer with broad shoulders and prince-like suits. As opposed to his predecessor, the (adopted) Californian managed to project a forceful and confident image. It is not clear that we should attribute the fall of the Berlin Wall to him just because he demanded it, but still, he no doubt contributed to it with the substantial help — it's true — of a certain Mikhail Gorbachev.

Journalist Thomas Friedman recently asked in The New York Times, "Who Had It Easier, Reagan or Obama?" The Republican was a man of the Cold War. The conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union represented one form of world order, a bipolar era.

Meanwhile, Obama is a man governing at a time of global chaos, a "non-polar" era. Obama's world has multiple power hubs, new and old, that coexist without yet having established the rules of a game that non-state actors constantly work to disrupt, as ISIS has done. "In several critical areas, Reagan had a much easier world to lead in than Obama does now," Friedman concluded.

Reagan, pictured in 1984, caught a good wave of history (Wikipedia)

What has fashioned the president's foreign policy is that of his immediate predecessor, Republican George W. Bush. All of Obama's reflexes are the opposite of "W's" legacy. Including the will to remove the United States from two theaters of combat, Afghanistan and Iraq, and the conviction that there are limits to what the American military machine can accomplish, particularly in conflicts as complex as those of the Middle East. On the basis of the last 15 years, who could argue otherwise?

A hesitant warrior, Obama is at a key moment in his presidency: He's going to war. Worse, he's doing it in this accursed region from which he wanted to withdraw the U.S. Worse still, he has set himself an objective too ambitious to be achieved from the cockpit of a fighter jet. Instead, finishing off ISIS would no doubt require a ground intervention and the reconstruction of two states in ruins, Iraq and Syria. The task of a generation.

But he can weaken ISIS, contain its expansion, and by doing this, limit the scope of the massacres in progress and the number of miserable people condemned to exile. He acts with caution when he announces a long-term operation. More importantly, he is involving the Arab nations in this aerial campaign, which is no small diplomatic success. America, and particularly "W," has much to atone for in the region. But the president is convinced, with reason, that the future of the Arab world is first and foremost the affair of the Arabs.

In all this, if Obama reminds us of one of his predecessors, it is George H. W. Bush, W's father, who accompanied the difficult phase of the final breakdown of the USSR with a certain tact. It's a comparison that's almost a compliment.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!