Politics & Government

Obama gets an 'incomplete' in foreign policy for first year

President Obama visited French President Sarkozy in April 2009.
President Obama visited French President Sarkozy in April 2009. Orban Thierry/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — A year after he took office to global acclaim, President Barack Obama has yet to translate his mantra of "change" into foreign policy success or to define how he'll use America's clout to advance its security, economic and political interests.

Both Democratic and Republican foreign policy veterans give Obama high marks for dispersing the toxic cloud of anti-Americanism that gathered during the Bush years, particularly in the Muslim world. However, they say, it remains to be seen whether and how he'll employ the diplomatic sticks that are needed to defeat Islamic extremism, advance Middle East peace, back Iran off its nuclear program, handle a rising China and navigate the inevitable unforeseen crises.

Obama "has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen," Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, wrote in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

A former senior official who served in top posts in several Republican administrations offered a similar critique. He said that Obama took office facing three tasks: to change the global mood toward America, to fashion a foreign policy strategy and then to execute it.

On the first, "Obama's done well, although it's started to sag a little," said the former official, who didn't wanted to be quoted by name criticizing a sitting president. However, he said, Obama is "having trouble putting meat on the bones of his rhetoric. Is this endemic, or will it take more time?"

Even Obama's admirers say they're unsure what his foreign policy lodestar is, where he fits along the continuum from hardheaded realist to soft-power multilateralist or what his foreign policy priorities are.

"Statecraft is about choice, and choice is about national character and power. It's about grasping the nettle and showing one's mettle. Obama, after his first year, is deliciously — or vexingly — indistinct," Josef Joffe, the publisher of Germany's Die Zeit newspaper and a supporter of a muscular U.S. global role, wrote in The American Interest magazine.

The president and his foreign policy team are likely to be tested aplenty in the year ahead.

They're trying to revive an Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that foundered last year after Washington demanded that Israel freeze Jewish settlements in territory claimed by the Palestinians. Critics call that approach one of Obama's biggest tactical blunders to date, and White House aides say the impasse is one of their biggest disappointments.

Obama will attempt to cajole the United Nations Security Council, including a deeply reluctant China, to impose new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. He wants to do that, however, without alienating Iran's "green movement" opposition or closing the door to negotiations with the Iranian regime.

In the military sphere, Iraq's March elections may determine whether Obama can meet his pledge to remove U.S. combat brigades by August. It also remains to be seen whether his plan to send 30,000 or more additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan can reverse the eroding situation there, after he sent 21,000 more last year.

A 12-month foreign policy report card is bound to contain lots of "incompletes," given the long-term character of many world problems. Presidents have been trying to make Middle East peace for nearly four decades, and have been frustrated by North Korea's nuclear program for two.

Obama's aides say he inherited a mess on Jan. 20, 2009 — frayed international alliances, a rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, an ongoing war in Iraq, a just-completed Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip. Hanging over it all was the worst U.S. financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Many outside experts agree, but from here on, the problems are Obama's.

White House aides say the president reversed the downward trend in his first year. Obama, they said, overhauled U.S. polices on climate change; the Guantanamo Bay prison and nuclear proliferation; and reached out to allies in Europe, erstwhile partners such as Russia and adversaries such as Iran to set the stage for later achievements.

Obama's outreach "was not simply an exercise in good will. It was essential to lay the groundwork for things we want to achieve" in the coming months, said White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

"On some of these long-term initiatives . . . we have only begun to move in the direction that we're going," Rhodes said in an interview. "We did a lot of legwork to position ourselves to start hitting a bunch of targets."

A State Department official put it more urgently. "We need to get some deals done . . . on these headline issues" in Obama's second year, said the official, who wasn't authorized to speak for the record.

On Iran, for example, senior administration officials said that Obama's effort to repair relations with Russia made it more likely that Moscow would cooperate in pressuring Tehran over its nuclear program. Meanwhile, his offer to engage with Iran has made it clear to the world that the problem isn't U.S. intransigence, but Iran's flouting of nuclear nonproliferation agreements.

The State Department official said that there had been no first-year foreign "disasters," either. That's no small consideration given John F. Kennedy's misplayed encounter with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna and his Bay of Pigs imbroglio; Bill Clinton's mission gone awry in Somalia; and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks eight months into George W. Bush's first term.

Unlike the battles in Bush's first term, there's no open warfare among the Oval Office, the vice president's office, the Pentagon, the State Department and the intelligence agencies, either. In the Obama administration, there's no question who controls foreign policy: the White House and its substantial National Security Council staff.

Obama has broken sharply with Bush on some policies, but in other areas, he's been more cautious than audacious.

On the wars in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, "I was struck by the continuity, which I don't think anyone would necessarily have expected looking back two years ago," said Brett McGurk, who worked on both conflicts in the Bush and Obama White Houses. McGurk is now with the private Council on Foreign Relations.

Obama's lengthy review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan left the impression that he was a reluctant warrior. His setting of a July 2011 target date for starting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was seen in some quarters as evidence that he conducts security policy with a keen ear to domestic politics.

Rhodes disputed that. Obama resisted significant pressure to make a quicker decision on Afghanistan, showing he "wasn't pushed around by the politics," Rhodes said.

The July 2011 date, he said, wasn't about politics. "It was about disciplining ourselves and the Afghan government about meeting targets," avoiding an open-ended commitment that might discourage the Afghan government from assuming more responsibility.


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