Obama's 'Final Year': Epitaph for an Illusion
"The Final Year," with its all-star cast of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. adviser Samantha Power, and national security deputy Ben Rhodes, might be the saddest movie of the year.
It's a fly on the wall, political campaign-style documentary of the last year of Obama’s foreign policy as seen from inside the bubble of power. While Kerry, Power and Rhodes travel the world, seeking to complete Obama’s global legacy, they dismiss the possibility that Republican president candidate Donald Trump might win.
As a result, the HBO-produced film arrived for a limited run in Washington theaters this month with subtext that producers and leading actors did not intend and barely understood. Designed to celebrate Obama & Co’s statesmanship, the movie also illuminates their cluelessness.
From what we see of the stars, they are likable. Obama comes off as both elegant and diligent, inscribing himself on the coin of history. He notes he is the first president to serve two terms during which the nation was at war the whole time.
But what we don’t see matters. “The Final Year” does little to convey the reality of Obama’s tenure as commander-in-chief, rendering the movie bloodless in more ways than one. We see no video from the brutal Syrian civil war, from which Obama mostly, and wisely, abstained. There’s no aerial footage of U.S. drone strikes, which Obama escalated ten-fold from his much-reviled predecessor George W. Bush.
Instead, we get emotionally charged scenes in which the stars can display their sympathy and intelligence in service of Obama’s second-term diplomatic initiatives: the Paris Climate Agreement, the international pact to curb Iran’s nuclear program and the normalization of relations with Cuba.
Kerry spouts bromides and revisits Vietnam, but doesn’t open up much. Power is more compelling. With the lean build and weary determination of a middle-distance runner, she travels from the United Nations to a Nigerian refugee campaign to her nanny’s naturalization ceremony, all the while empathizing and advocating. She makes the case for liberal interventionism, including military aid to the Syrian rebels.
Rhodes is an affable dweeb toting a backpack, an everyman who channels Obama’s “realist” foreign policy into tasty soundbites to the liberal masses. His boss, he says, resisted the instinct of the Washington foreign policy establishment to respond to foreign crises with military intervention.
While skirting the subject of war, they make a strong case for Obama’s diplomacy, which today has been mostly jettisoned by Trump. The United States has withdrawn from the Paris treaty. The Cuba opening has been closed. The Iran deal is still in effect, but its days look numbered.
For all of their sophisticated understanding of geopolitics, Obama & Co. flunked a basic test of power. They failed to see the ideological tsunami rising on the horizon in 2016 and had no explanation of where it came from or why it wrecked the legacy they were so carefully constructing.
When asked about Trump’s unexpected victory, Rhodes tries and fails to form a complete sentence. It is sad to see.
What They Missed
Trump rose to power on the strength of his hostility to elites, including the foreign policy elite that gave us the endless unsuccessful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His harsh attacks on the Bush family for the catastrophically stupid invasion of Iraq were unlike anything ever heard in U.S. foreign policy debates—and a lot of Americans liked that.
Obama, former editor of the Harvard Law Review, rose on his skill in appealing to elites, including the foreign policy elite disillusioned by the neoconservative follies of the Bush era. Obama shut down the Bush-Cheney torture regime, but expanded the drone war. He sometimes rebuffed Samantha Power and the liberal interventionists working for him (as in the debate over Syria). Other times he joined them (as in the Libya intervention of 2011).
In his final year, Obama & Co. made an intelligent case for their policies, not realizing that outside the bubble of power, their elite audience had little appeal to, or credibility with half the American electorate. Around the world, the difference between Bush’s neoconservative crusades and Obama’s restrained interventionism was real and critical. At home, it was a distinction without a difference.
“The Final Year” is an epitaph for the illusion that the U.S. foreign policy elite was untouchable.