international analysis and commentary

Obama’s daunting agenda: a good first year

Upon assuming office in January 2009, President Obama was confronted with a number of interrelated foreign policy and domestic challenges. The US was involved in two wars that did not appear to have a satisfactory end game, nor the support of the American people. These wars not only strained our ground forces to the breaking point but undermined our standing in the world – and they were bankrupting us at home. Our relations with Russia were badly strained as a result of the Bush administration’s plan to deploy missiles and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic and its initiative to expand NATO into Georgia and Ukraine. Finally, as a result of the erratic diplomacy of the Bush administration, Iran and North Korea were close to becoming nuclear powers and the nuclear non-proliferation and climate change regimes were in tatters.

Meanwhile, at home, our economy was in a tailspin, as the practice of both the people and government living beyond their means finally caught up with us. Pumping borrowed stimulus funds into the economy to prevent another Great Depression not only made it politically and economically more difficult to fund our overseas engagements but made Americans further question the necessity of these engagements in the first place.

Finally, President Obama took office at a time when the age of American hegemony had ended. While that period, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, would have eventually ended, the actions of the his predecessor, which squandered American economic, military, and political power, accelerated that decline.

Path to recovery
In less than a year, President Obama has moved to deal with these problems quickly and decisively, and reversed the decline in American security. Like his efforts at home, he has put us on the path to recovery in the area of foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, the situation was, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serious and deteriorating. Within two months after taking office, Obama made his intentions clear by doubling the number of troops, placing one of the military’s most accomplished generals in charge, and asking him to make a no-holds-barred assessment of the situation. The result of that assessment was Obama’s December 1st announcement to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and to begin a withdrawal process as soon as July 2011. His decision to increase the forces and focus on Afghanistan has no doubt had an impact on Pakistan’s decision to finally go after the Taliban.

In Iraq, the Bush administration, on its way out the door, had signed the strategic framework agreement, which obligated us to withdraw our forces from cities and towns by June 30, 2009 and from the country completely by Dec. 31, 2011. But it had not developed a plan for moving the 57 brigade equivalents or the millions of pieces of equipment out of the country over the next three years.

Working with Gen. Raymond Odierno, Obama developed a plan to wait until after the Iraqi elections to begin to withdraw the bulk of our combat troops and replace half of them with advisory and assistance brigades with enough firepower to protect US forces, diplomats and aid workers, as well as to work with the Iraqi forces during our remaining time in the country. Because the Iraqis are convinced that we are in fact leaving, they have less incentive to attack US forces. The plan has worked so well that Odierno has accelerated the withdrawal pace.

Our relationship with a resurgent Russia was badly strained, primarily because of the ill-advised scheme to place long-range missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. By scrapping this system, Obama has been able to reset our relations with Russia. This has allowed us to obtain their cooperation on negotiating a new START treaty and allowing our supplies to cross their territory on the way to Afghanistan.

These moves and many others – including Obama’s travels to 20 countries; promising to reinvigorate the climate change and nuclear nonproliferation processes; building a first rate national security team; reaching out to the Arab and Muslim worlds in his Cairo speech; negotiating with the Iranians directly and without preconditions; and attempting to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process – have improved the United States’ standing in the world. This no doubt was what led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

What’s ahead
But well begun is only half done, that is, getting off to a good start is not enough. Obama still has to come to grips with a number of problems. First, and foremost is following through with his new strategic plan for Afghanistan.

Second, Iran appears to be reneging on the deal they agreed to on October 1st, in negotiations with the P5 + 1, to transfer most of their low-enriched uranium to Russia. How long will Obama wait before taking action? A similar situation exists in North Korea, which continues to make progress toward developing nuclear weapons.

Third, after making it clear that he wanted Israel to put a total freeze on settlements, including East Jerusalem, members of his administration have begun to back off – undermining the Palestinian leadership and antagonizing many Israelis.

Fourth, the START Treaty talks with Russia were not completed by December 5th when the 1991 agreement expired. This means that Obama will have to get 2/3 of the Senate to ratify the treaty in an election year.

Doubting change
While Obama remains personally popular in the world, even some of our closest allies are raising doubts about his policies and actions.

Some contend that Obama has focused too much on domestic as opposed to foreign policy. Critics holding this point of view point out all the efforts he has put into getting the stimulus and health care bills passed and say he has not given the same attention and effort to foreign policy challenges like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What these critics fail to note is that the domestic and foreign policy issues are inescapably related. The US cannot fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unless it gets its domestic house in order.

Others claim that Obama gives great speeches but does not follow up with specific, concrete actions. By giving his first TV interview to the Arab station Al Arabiya, and in his speeches in Ankara and Cairo, Obama reached out to the Arab and Muslim worlds. Moreover, Obama followed up these words with actions. For example, he announced that Guantanamo would be closed, released the torture memos, ended the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques and announced that the mastermind of the 9-11 attacks would be brought to trial in a US federal court.

Many, especially Europeans, claim that Obama is more concerned with Asia, particularly China, than its traditional allies in Europe. However, Obama has given a speech in Prague, convened a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, attended the NATO meeting which marked its 60th anniversary, passed General McChrystal’s recommendation on to Europeans before making his decision and decided to attend the Copenhagen Conference on climate change. Moreover, Obama recognizes correctly that global challenges cannot be solved without the active participation of China – the world’s second largest economy, greatest emitter of greenhouse gases and home to the world’s largest population.

Obama is also criticized by some for trying to do too much too soon and by others for doing too little. The real problem for Obama is not that he has not solved all the world’s problems in less than a year, but that his unprecedented rise to power has created unrealistic expectations that it would be impossible for any political leader to fulfill, especially so quickly. Judging him by the criteria that are normally applied to newly elected presidents in their first year, he has done remarkably well, particularly given the problems he has inherited.

Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Further reading
Obama’s foreign policy: time to deliver by John C. Hulsman
When change takes time: the US health care debate by Eric B. Schnurer