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.