First 100 days: Grading Obama’s foreign policy

April 29, 2009

Michael O'Hanlon— Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The views expressed are his own. —

It’s no great surprise in American politics these days, but already a great partisan debate has broken out about President Obama’s foreign policy effectiveness to date. For his enthusiasts, the United States has hit the “reset” button and is reclaiming its place as not only a strong country, but a respected leader among nations. For his detractors, Obama is making the world dangerous by apologizing for America’s alleged misdeeds of the past, naively talking with dictators, and cutting the defense budget.

And as usual, the truth is neither of these polar positions. But as a past critic of Obama, especially during his days of promising a rapid and unconditional exit from Iraq during the presidential campaign, I would nonetheless argue that he has done a good job overall, and that his supporters have the stronger case to date. Still, making too much of provisionally good decisions in the first 100 days verges on playing a silly game of Potomac Jeopardy that only the evening talk shows and political junkies really care about. The bottom line is that Obama is just getting started. But he is off to a more solid start than almost any of his recent predecessors.

Consider the policy towards five key nations. And start with the wars. These are Category A problems. Obama has inherited a more difficult hand than any president since Nixon in terms of active, ongoing conflicts. Already we have lost almost as many American troops in our two wars on Obama’s watch as died in the first year of all of Obama’s predecessors going back to Carter combined.

But that is not a slight on the president, only a reminder of the difficult world that confronts him. And in dealing with these challenges, to date Obama has wisely listened to the counsel of his commanders and other experts on Iraq and Afghanistan. Our drawdown in the former place, while still rapid, will retain up to 50,000 U.S. troops even after it’s over. That is a lot of combat capability, and as such a departure from what Obama promised last year, and a relief to those of us still nervous about Iraq.

In Afghanistan, Obama will roughly double the American troop presence there in his first year in office. That will finally give commanders the wherewithal (or at least most of the wherewithal) to carry out a proper counterinsurgency strategy–with its twin goals of protecting the civilian population and building up Afghan institutions so they can increasingly do the job on their own.

The other crucial set of problems might be described as the nuclear hot spots–Iran, North Korea, Pakistan. On these, Obama’s record is less impressive to date. That is not, however, because he has done anything particularly wrong. Rather, the problems are extremely nettlesome. If Obama deserves any criticism, it is simply that his campaign rhetoric implied these would be far easier problems once George Bush was out of the White House and a new president was ensconced on Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, the main reason these problems are hard is because of who we are dealing with in each case, and not because of George Bush or any other American leader. Since Obama is the one who raised expectations, he deserves to take a bit of a hit perhaps for not quickly fulfilling them–but otherwise his hand seems rather steady on the tiller.

Indeed, President Obama’s Pakistan policy is already an improvement over Bush’s in its emphasis on more military and economic aid, the naming of a special envoy, and related efforts. These steps finally begin to recognize our stakes in this crucial part of the world. Still, to call anybody’s policy towards Pakistan a solid one at a time when that country is practically crumbling before our eyes would go too far. Again, his policy is more “incomplete” than anything else. Which is exactly what you’d expect after 100 days.


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“Already we have lost almost as many American troops in our two wars on Obama’s watch as died in the first year of all of Obama’s predecessors going back to Carter combined.” What a loaded useless statement that, as you put it earlier “only the evening talk shows and political junkies really care about”. We weren’t engaged in the first years of Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush.

And you still defeat your own argument, because fewer have died on Obama’s watch.

Posted by James Darling | Report as abusive

Obama has made it very clear at the very start that US economy is his number one priority. Hence he picked Hiliary Clinton and Joe Bidden to look after foreign policies for him. Remember Hiliary Clinton had almost half of the Democratic Party’s vote so this is a reasonable arrangement.

Obama would not have enough political capital to change foreign policy dramatically until he proves himself with the US Economy. So if one sees not much change in the 100 days, it is by design.

Posted by Lee Siu Hoi | Report as abusive