In a year of many challenges for Barack Obama on the home front, from high unemployment and a sagging economy to the ongoing complexities of the health care reform debate, I would argue that the president has had a very good year in foreign policy.
As he said when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway, a few weeks back, to date his international accomplishments are slight.
But in terms of the quality of decisions that he has made on the national security front, and his care in avoiding mistakes, he has had the best first year of a Democratic president since at least Harry Truman.
About that Peace Prize. I thought it badly premature, and nothing about my solid grade of A- for his foreign policy in 2009 should be attributed to Obamamania.
But since becoming president, Obama has established a much more deliberative and pragmatic style on decision-making, even while maintaining some of the idealism and vision that so appealed to his most passionate supporters in the early days. His decisions to stick with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other parts of the Pentagon leadership inherited from the previous administration displayed an ability to recognize the best of what the Bush administration had put together in foreign policy even as Obama continued to underscore that he would be a much different type of American president. He immediately set to work with major reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan policy, and broadened the scope of the latter to include the strategically crucial country of Pakistan.
His initial decisions on these three countries were very good too. On Iraq, he slightly slowed his promised drawdown schedule from 16 months to 19. More importantly, he agreed to leave up to 50,000 troops in the country even after the drawdown was complete. On Afghanistan, he nearly doubled the U.S. troop commitment to the country. On Pakistan, he pushed a major expansion of economic and security assistance while also being willing to continue the unpopular yet important drone attacks on extremist leaders.
Meanwhile, policy toward the “rogue states” was increasingly pragmatic. Obama worked hard to strengthen sanctions on North Korea after its second nuclear test last spring, and gradually turned up the heat on Iran as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first stole an election and then continued to pursue technologies related to nuclear weapons.
To be sure, these policies are unlikely to bring Pyongyang or Tehran to their knees, but they are still the best of bad policy options. Similarly, while Obama and Mideast envoy George Mitchell have been unable to create progress in the Arab-Israeli peace process, the dual message of demanding that Hamas rein in its violence while publicly and forcefully pressuring Israel over the settlement issue has created a kind of balance that prepares us for possible opportunities down the road.
Defense budget choices to date have been fine. Mr. Gates made sound choices in canceling a few weapons. Obama has worked hard to establish a bond with the troops and their families. And he has wisely avoided don’t ask don’t tell during his first year in office.
For true Obama believers, his key speeches of the year — not only the Oslo message, but his June address to the broader Muslim world in Cairo — were masterpieces. For me, they were simply solid; well crafted, free of mistakes, balanced in message and the right thing to do.
Most of all, I was impressed by Obama’s deliberateness and care in reaching a second big decision on Afghanistan this fall. He was criticized for supposed indecisiveness in taking three months to respond to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation for more troops. But the request was made only five months after Obama had already doubled U.S. force commitments to the country, so the president was entitled to be a bit skeptical about another troop request coming so soon. Under the circumstances the timing of the decision, and the decision itself, was quite sound.
For those who worry that we are spending too much time on small extremist countries and not enough on the major players and forces that will shape the 21st century, Obama made major outreach efforts to China and India. And on global warming, the failure to reach a major binding accord at Copenhagen, Denmark, was a partial success, pushing the issue forward a bit while avoiding the temptation to ask Americans to support a complex treaty concept that few understand or support.
Most of these decisions improve our odds of future success without yet amounting to major accomplishments. But for a first-year president, that is as much as can probably be expected.