Obama’s Solid First Year on Foreign Policy

Vice President Cheney has been excoriating President Obama’s foreign policy approach of late, and Republican partisans reportedly sense an opportunity to portray yet another Democratic president as supposedly weak on national security in the coming months. The last week of 2009, with an attempted plane bombing in Detroit and tragic attack against CIA operatives in Afghanistan capping off the year, helps set the context for these criticisms.

But in fact, Obama has had a solid first year in foreign policy matters. By one measure, comparison with other first-year presidents in modern history, Obama ranks with the three or four best since World War II by my estimation – and I write this as someone who opposed Obama during the Democratic primary process of 2007-2008 largely because of fears at the time that he would not be strong on national security.

To be sure, Obama’s first year accomplishments are more in the realm of creating good inputs to policy rather than achieving good outputs. Results to date have been relatively few, as would be expected of a first-year president, and as Obama himself rightly acknowledged in his December speech in Oslo accepting the Noble Peace Prize.

Indeed, that peace prize was to my mind badly premature. To his credit, Obama seemed to agree in calling his accomplishments to date “slight” by comparison with other prize winners. The speech itself was good, as were Obama’s addresses in Prague in April over the future of nuclear weapons and in Cairo in June about U.S. relations with the Islamic world. But these remarks were more solid, smart, and reasonable than transformational or historic; my solid assessment of his first year in office is not based on his words, or vision of hope and change, so much as sound policy decisions.

As everything about recent events has underscored, the United States still has literally a world of problems to address, few of them substantially mitigated over the course of 2009. But on balanc, Obama has gotten a few major matters moving in better directions, limited the damage or found the least-bad policy when faced with a menu of bad choices on other matters, and set the stage for possible future progress elsewhere.

First-year presidents do not tend to perform well on the foreign policy front. Some did have good years, of course. George H. W. Bush may be the best example, with progress towards German reunification, major developments in ending of the Cold War, and the successful invasion of Panama to show for 1989. Ronald Reagan accelerated the post-Vietnam U.S. defense buildup dramatically in his first year in office. Eisenhower helped end the Korean War. George W. Bush responded reasonably successfully to 9/11, though his disdain for ongoing negotiations with the likes of North Korea as well as Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors tainted the year’s accomplishments, and of course bin Laden got away in the mountains of Tora Bora at the end of 2001.

Most Democratic presidents had big problems. Kennedy dealt with the Bay of Pigs. Johnson starting falling down the slippery slopes of Southeast Asia in a way that set the stage for full-scale American combat involvement in Vietnam in 1965. Carter struggled with his effort to balance human rights and national security interests in 1977; Clinton struggled with Somalia and Haiti and Bosnia in 1993. And of course Republicans had their issues too; it would be hard to call 1969 a particularly impressive year for Richard Nixon, in light of the escalations Nixon set in motion in Vietnam.

As for Obama, consider first the wars. He inherited an improving situation in Iraq and very troubled situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And with the help of an outstanding national security team, he made the right calls on all three wars.

In Iraq, campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, he adopted a relatively pragmatic and gradual drawdown plan for U.S. forces there – not too different from what the Bush Administration envisioned as it left the White House. Rather than pull out all American combat forces within 16 months of his inauguration, as he promised as a candidate, Obama will now take 19 months to bring us down to 50,000 GIs, a pragmatic approach that builds on his predecessor’s surge of 2007 and 2008.

Indeed, if Mr. Cheney sought to quarrel with Obama, it would have been more fair to note that in fact, some of Obama’s successes build on policies that the Bush Administration itself had put into effect – if sometimes quite belatedly. These include not only the surge in Iraq but the appointment of an outstanding leadership team at the Pentagon in the latter years of the administration, gradual efforts to tighten sanctions on Iran, and the six-party process for North Korean talks finally pursued more sincerely in Bush’s second term (over Cheney’s objections).

Even more so, Obama adopted a general approach to homeland security that is rather similar to Bush’s. There has been no huge increase in the homeland security budget, no radical makeover of intelligence agencies (at least not yet), no decision to equip every first responder in the country with state of the art gear against chemical and biological agents as many Democrats have long advocated, and no other radical change.

But on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the change has been enormous. Obama will triple U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan in his first 18 months in office, a remarkably resolute decision for a first-term president. Here Cheney’s criticisms are badly off the mark. The fact that Obama took three months this past fall to approve the second big troop increase of his presidency reflected a natural skepticism about why a second big buildup would do the trick when the first had not, together with a need to use the prospect of American re-commitment as leverage with President Karzai. On Afghanistan, Obama has been exemplary.

And on Pakistan, a place presenting the United States with no real good options, Obama has more than doubled U.S. aid, solidly backed Pakistan’s democracy, and intensified the drone strikes that the Bush Administration again deserves some credit for initiating. These decisions do not guarantee a good outcome, of course, but each of them is prudent and correct.

Obama has done a good job with the great powers too. Again, actual results to date are limited in number and magnitude. But the foundations for possible future progress are being established. His first year included summits with leaders of India and China, high-level engagement with key allies like Japan, and sustained pursuit of Vice President Biden’s best sound bite of the year —the decision to “push the reset button” on relations between Washington and Moscow, leading among other things to adoption of a new and less controversial (and possibly more effective) missile defense architecture for Central Europe.

Most of all, any assessment of Obama’s first year must include numerous “incompletes.” There is a long way to go on each of the issues and relationships noted above, as well as on other matters such as global economic recovery, trade negotiations, Arab-Israeli peace talks, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s excellent idea to conclude a Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review this year. But for his poise, his deliberateness, his ability to juggle numerous issues, and most of all the quality of his decisions, Obama is off to a very solid start.