Obama off to a Good Start on Security Issues

Now that President Barack Obama has reached his half-year milestone, it is a good moment to give an interim report on his foreign policy record. On handling national security matters, he is off to a good start. A quick survey of the world’s hot spots shows why.

Start with the NATO allies. Here Obama has improved the tone of trans-Atlantic relations remarkably. This is not by itself a huge deal; after all, President George W. Bush built a substantial NATO coalition for the war in Afghanistan – and Obama has not been able to broaden or strengthen this coalition. Our allies have recently suffered their 500th combined fatality in Afghanistan; countries such as Britain and Canada are making particularly significant contributions, as they were under Bush. Obama’s main contribution with the allies has probably been to better position us for tighter sanctions on Iran if necessary.

On Russia, as Vice President Joe Biden has said, this administration has tried to hit the “reset button.” With Moscow, a certain amount of improved atmospherics may go a long way. The nuclear arms talks now under way, for example, are not crucial for modestly reducing nuclear arsenals – but probably assuage Russia’s superpower complex a bit and thereby may help on Iran and other matters. Meanwhile, the administration is doing a generally good job of addressing the Georgia issue, simultaneously telling Moscow and Tbilisi that renewed conflict would be unacceptable.

Moving further east, on North Korea, the administration has correctly handled Pyongyang’s provocations with its nuclear and missile tests, helping apply tougher sanctions without overdoing it. It is too bad that we do not have an opportunity to improve relations with the North early in Obama’s term, but that has been North Korea’s choice. Obama can be faulted only for building up unrealistic expectations during his campaign last year that a new style of U.S. diplomacy could quickly ease our problems with states like North Korea and Iran.

On China, Mr. Obama luckily inherited a more stable Taiwan situation than had his immediate predecessors, but his overall approach has still been solid. High-level talks have already occurred with Beijing – but also with America’s Asia allies. Hillary Clinton made a wise move to take her first foreign trip as secretary of state to that region. Concerted engagement has continued since. No great accomplishments to date – but again, a solid sense of getting the basics right.

A similar assessment applies to India, where Clinton just made a major trip, trying to build on the success of recent administrations in forging a stronger bilateral relationship. Real results will have to follow on issues like nuclear nonproliferation, but she is laying the groundwork for that attempt.

How about the “axis of anxiety” – Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan? As a critic of Obama’s during his campaign, I have been relieved to watch his actions as president. His wartime policies in both major battlefields build wisely on the lessons of the Iraq surge. His gradual troop drawdown plan for Iraq strikes a good military balance. He may need to increase troops and resources further for Afghanistan, and steel Americans for a sustained effort there. So far, thankfully, Obama seems inclined to listen to his commanders and secretary of defense on what is likely needed there.

The appointment of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as special coordinator for the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater was wise, as were decisions to increase resources for Pakistan and to place Gen. Stanley McChrystal in charge of the Afghanistan war effort. Iran policy has achieved no big successes. But the substance of policy has wisely moved toward positioning ourselves to increase pressure on Iran.

Finally, on Middle East peace talks, there is obviously no breakthrough yet. But it was smart to hire former Sen. George Mitchell, perhaps the world’s greatest living mediator, as special envoy. So was the willingness of the administration to pressure Israel over settlements – without raising the stakes unrealistically or threatening to actually punish Israel. Some say Obama has been too tough on Israel, but its settlement activities are in fact a major barrier to peace and an unjust basic policy. Obama’s team is right to establish credibility as a generally impartial, if still pro-Israel, negotiator.

On each of these issues, and some others not addressed here, it is hard to declare any lasting success yet, and more difficult moments surely lie ahead. But at a time when Obama is having some challenges on the home front, as regards his foreign policy, my overall assessment is so far, so good.