Lawrence J. Korb
In many ways, the foreign-policy situation that President Barack Obama inherited was as bad, if not worse, than the economic mess bequeathed to him by the Bush administration. And in the year since his election, Obama has reversed the decline in American security and by his decisions in key areas has put us on the path to recovery.
In Afghanistan, the situation was, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serious and deteriorating. People in the region, especially in Pakistan, worried about our staying power, particularly since the Bush administration had put the war on the back burner and refused even to consider the requests of Generals Dan McNeill and David McKiernan for more troops. Within two months, Obama made his intentions clear by doubling the number of troops, placing one of the military's most accomplished generals in charge, and asking him to make a no-holds-barred assessment. Using that assessment, plus inputs from his experienced foreign-policy team -- including a secretary of defense who has served six American presidents and directed the CIA, a former NATO commander, and this country's most effective diplomat -- he is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of his next steps, something the previous administration never did before invading Iraq. Moreover, his decision to increase the forces in and focus on Afghanistan has no doubt had an impact on Pakistan's decision to go after the Taliban.
In Iraq, the Bush administration, on its way out the door, had signed the strategic framework agreement, which obligated us to withdraw our forces from cities and towns by June 30, 2009, and from the country completely by Dec. 31, 2011. But it had not developed a plan for moving the 57 brigade equivalents or the millions of pieces of equipment over the next three years. Working with Gen. Raymond Odierno, Obama developed a plan to wait until after the Iraqi elections in January to withdraw the bulk of our combat troops and replace half of them with advisory and assistance brigades with enough firepower to protect U.S. forces, diplomats, and aid workers, as well as to work with the Iraqi forces during our remaining time in the country. The plan has worked so well that Odierno has actually accelerated the withdrawal pace because setting out a plan to leave has convinced the Iraqis that we are leaving, thus diminishing their incentive to attack U.S. forces.
Our relationship with a resurgent Russia was badly strained, primarily because of the ill-advised scheme to place long-range missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly characterized it as a weapons system that does not work, against a threat that does not exist, to protect people who have not asked to be protected. By scrapping this system, which the Russians perceived as a threat to its strategic deterrent, Obama had been able to reset our relations with Russia and obtain their cooperation on negotiating a new START treaty and allowing our supplies to cross their territory on the way to Afghanistan.
These moves and many others -- including Obama's reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world in his Cairo speech, negotiating with the Iranians directly and without preconditions, and reinvigorating the Middle East peace process -- have improved the United States' standing in the world. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded, "Confidence in Barack Obama's foreign policy judgments stands behind a resurgent U.S. image in many countries." This no doubt was what led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
But getting off to a good start is not enough. In the next year, Obama's final grade will depend on such issues as his decisions on Afghanistan and how he handles an Iran that refuses to live up to its commitments. But if the past is prologue, he should do well.
Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information.
U.S. President Barack Obama's Cairo speech in June struck all the right chords. But, Obama has failed to sufficiently personally engage on the issue that matters most in the struggle against violent Islamist extremism: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although the president appears caught in a bind over Afghanistan, his foreign-policy team should be lauded for persuading Pakistan to finally dedicate real resources to confronting al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal areas. But even more engagement and resources will be necessary to remove the danger posed by what remains a terrorist safe-haven, a threat underlined by the fact that the FBI just foiled what appears to be the most significant terrorist plot on U.S. soil since the September 11 attacks.
Paul Cruickshank is a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University's School of Law.
The administration has moved from the initial period of "reset" to the tougher period of implementation. A lot of people focus on the inevitable lack of immediate progress -- some because they want change and are growing frustrated, others because they oppose his agenda and seek every opportunity to declare failure. I get frustrated, and I've been critical of some of Obama's tactics and priorities. But stepping back from the day-to-day triumphs and frustrations shows an administration which has come a long way in less than ten months.
This is a global perspective, but I'll focus mainly on the Middle East. Obama has transformed the tone and tenor of America's relationship with the Islamic world, downgrading the focus on terrorism and al Qaeda in favor of a broadly based outreach and engagement. The Cairo speech isn't enough, and the follow-up hasn't been as visible and sustained as I'd like -- but the fact is that al Qaeda today is as marginal in Arab politics as it has been in a decade, and Obama deserves credit for that. Obama has done a great job of maintaining his commitment to withdraw responsibly from Iraq despite all sorts of pressures and temptations to change his mind, and has not overreacted to each day's new crisis. The engagement with Syria continues. He has chosen to engage seriously with the decision-making about Afghanistan and has run an impressively inclusive and thoughtful deliberation process despite the impatience of advocates for escalation or withdrawal. And he has done an extremely impressive job of building a global coalition toward Iran and has made more progress on the nuclear front than most expected.
Obama has been less successful in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian track. After an outstanding beginning -- when he demonstrated his strong commitment to achieving a negotiated two-state solution and correctly decided to call for an Israeli settlement freeze -- his team allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drag the process down into the tar pits to die. He should have pivoted away from the settlements battle months ago, and now is paying the price. The administration has also struggled with Palestinian politics, relying heavily on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but undermining their legitimacy and failing to do anything to alleviate the suffering of Gaza.
Nobody expected Obama to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, end the Iranian nuclear standoff, or to transform the Islamic world in 10 months. And he hasn't. But he has accomplished quite a lot and has set the United States on a far better course in the region. Impatience is clearly growing, and skepticism is setting in about his ability to deliver. He may well fail. But for now, I think the broad contours of his policy are playing out reasonably well.
Marc Lynch is an associate professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He blogs at lynch.foreignpolicy.com.
In what feels like the fastest first year in presidential history, Obama has maintained the positive momentum with which he began -- public opinion, indifference, and impatience be damned. There is a no-nonsense dialogue with and strategy building on Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran is on the receiving end of a full-court press; and a new nuclear agreement is under construction with Russia. Whether or not the Nobel Peace Prize was deserved or premature is certainly debatable -- but that Obama has set a taboo-free course for U.S. foreign policy is not. It has been a fast year, so we still have time to see what fruit these efforts will bear. But the turnaround has certainly begun.
Parag Khanna is the director of the Global Governance Initiative and a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.
The substance of policy: A-
The execution of policy: Incomplete
President Barack Obama's foreign policy is, across the board, headed in the right direction. The administration is cautiously exiting from Iraq. It is approaching Afghanistan with due caution, searching for a strategy that promises to stabilize the country while limiting the scope of the U.S. commitment and keeping means and ends in balance. Obama's move to revamp plans for missile defense was sound and sensible (though its rollout was clumsy). His effort to reset relations with Russia is on course, and his willingness to pursue engagement with the likes of Iran, Cuba, and Syria is strategically sound, politically courageous, and being handled with appropriate sobriety. Obama has also succeeded in repairing America's image in many quarters of the globe. The transatlantic partnership is on much better footing. Efforts to close Guántanamo, take serious steps to limit global warming, reform and strengthen multilateral institutions -- these and other policies have restored confidence in U.S. leadership both at home and abroad.
Looking forward, the key challenge facing Obama is delivering, closing deals, turning policy initiatives into concrete outcomes. It is way too soon to proclaim, as critics often do, that the Obama administration is all talk and no action. On virtually all of the fronts in play, policy successes take years, not months. Closing a deal with the Russians on arms control, advancing diplomacy with Iran, finding the way forward in Afghanistan -- only after more time has passed can we judge the outcome of Obama's good intentions and sound policies. In the meantime, Obama would be wise to lay out clear road maps and timetables for advancing his ambitious agenda and obtaining clear deliverables to demonstrate that his policies are yielding concrete successes. As part of this effort, he should also begin laying the legislative groundwork at home. Obama certainly does not want to find himself having succeeded in reaching arms control agreements, new deals on climate change, or diplomatic breakthroughs with adversaries -- only to have his efforts stymied by a recalcitrant Congress.
Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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