Argument

Word Is Bond

Has President Obama kept Candidate Obama's campaign promises?

Four years ago last week, then-Senator Barack Obama delivered what is known in campaign parlance as the "big foreign policy speech." It's the sort of address that is a rite of passage for a presidential contender -- an opportunity to demonstrate to voters (and even more so reporters) that the candidate is fully prepared for the awesome responsibilities of U.S. global leadership.

Given at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., Obama used the address as an opportunity to lay out his major foreign policy and national security strategy while also differentiating himself from both his opponent Sen. John McCain and the President George W. Bush's deeply unpopular foreign policy.

Like any major campaign speech, Obama's remarks were more than just a vision of the future, they also represented a promise of what his presidency would bring to the country. So, four years later, it's worth asking the question: Has Obama upheld his foreign policy and national security promises?

While every candidate makes a host of pledges, declarations, and assurances on the campaign trail, for the purpose of simplicity and brevity, the Reagan Building speech provides a good template of Obama's campaign 2008 message and what he said he would do as president.  For example, while Politifact has helpfully pointed out that Obama broke his promise to "seek to negotiate a political agreement on Cyprus," we here at Foreign Policy are not going to make this into a federal issue (of course Cypriot-American voters may have a different perspective on this). Let's focus on the big stuff.

Here's what Obama said in his Reagan Building speech: "I will focus this [national security] strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

These five goals formed the outline of his foreign policy pitch to voters. So how has he done?

Iraq: No foreign policy promise was more essential to Obama's campaign appeal than his call to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Indeed, his early opposition to the war is a not insignificant reason why he won the Democratic nomination for president over Hillary Clinton, who supported Bush's Iraq invasion. On this count, then, mission accomplished, for real: all U.S. troops departed from Iraq at the end of 2011. In addition, Obama, for the most part, abided by his statement in the Reagan Building speech that, "True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future -- a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge."

There is one important caveat here. As president, Obama was largely implementing a strategy agreed to by his predecessor. The status of forces agreement (SOFA) that Bush signed with the Iraqi government (after, to be fair, Obama's speech was delivered) legally bound the United States to remove all of its troops by the end of 2011. Nonetheless, Obama adhered to this agreement; resisted calls from his own military and Republican to re-negotiate the SOFA and stay beyond that date; and laid out a clear timetable for U.S. withdrawal.  Promise kept -- though Obama had less control over the matter than his campaign.

Afghanistan/al Qaeda: The yin to Obama's Iraqi yang was always Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda. As he frequently did on the campaign trail in 2008, in his speech at the Reagan building, Obama emphatically made clear his inclination to shift the fight from Iraq to the Hindu Kush. "As President," Obama said then, "I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be." He pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan and also called for bolstering America's non-military assistance to Afghanistan.

In fact, his words back then were eerily prescient, "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." In regard to Pakistan, Obama pledged "to strengthen stability by standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people" and called for increasing "non-military aid to the Pakistani people" and moving beyond a "military alliance."

So how'd he do? Troop increase to Afghanistan: check.  Increased non-military assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan: check. Channeling aid to Pakistan away from the military and toward the "people": check. More drones and a dead Osama bin Laden: check.

But that only tells half the story.

While Obama did say in July 2008 that he would send two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan he of course went above and beyond that as President and sent an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009. Moreover, while he was true to his strategy of bolstering aid to the Afghan economy and more directly to the Pakistani people -- things haven't quite turned out the way that Obama rosily predicted. Afghanistan's future is murky at best: the Karzai government is hardly an effective partner of the United States, the Afghan military is still struggling to take over security responsibilities, and relations with Pakistan (and views of the United States in general) are at possibly their lowest point since September 11, 2001. So while promises might have been kept it hasn't necessarily added up to a smart policy.

Moreover, while Obama pledged to focus on the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in prosecuting the war on terror aggressively expanding the war to Yemen and Somalia, increasing the use of drones and creating a "kill list" that included an American citizen certainly wasn't part of his campaign rhetoric. As for his past statements about avoiding "stupid wars" and "changing the mindset" of American foreign policy, it's pretty hard to give Obama anything but a failing grade.

Still as promises go Obama stuck to his guns ... unfortunately.

Nuclear Proliferation: Four years ago, Obama promised to seek "a world with no nuclear weapons" and also to work with Russia in reducing both countries' nuclear weapons stockpiles. In fact, candidate Obama adopted a surprisingly fulsome non-proliferation agenda. Not only has he kept his promises, but the policy has been surprisingly successful.

He negotiated the New START treaty with Russia and got it ratified in the Senate. On loose nukes, he received pledges from four dozen countries to secure loose nuclear material within four years. Since then, participants in the plans have fulfilled more than 70 percent of the commitments that were made at a Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington in April 2010. And a year earlier in Prague he pledged the United States to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Finally, on the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions, Obama said in the Reagan Building speech he would "use all elements of American power to pressure the Iranian regime, starting with aggressive, principled and direct diplomacy -- diplomacy backed with strong sanctions and without preconditions."  This is almost to a word what the Obama administration has done on Iran (though unmentioned is his covert use of cyber-technology to disrupt Iran's nuclear ambitions). While some will argue that Obama was naïve to give diplomacy a chance with Iran it likely strengthened his hand in building international support for sanctions against Tehran and a strategy of increasing diplomatic isolation.

Nonetheless, Obama has fairly clearly fulfilled pretty much all of his promises in nuclear proliferation (even though he has not yet achieved a nuclear-free world) and in fact done more than perhaps any president since Ronald Reagan to limit the world's most dangerous weapons.

Energy Security: At first glance, Obama's record on "achieving true energy security" doesn't look so hot. The most glaring failure is his inability to get a cap and trade bill through Congress and do much of anything on climate change. At the very least Obama has hardly talked a big game on the need to deal with global warming (although he's offered hints that this will be on the top of his agenda in a second term). But on deeper inspection, Obama's record stands up to scrutiny.

For example, I asked Michael Grunwald, a correspondent at Time magazine and author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, which looks at the impact of the president's stimulus bill, for his take on Obama's green energy record. He said to me that "during the campaign, everyone said Obama was pandering to the greens by promising to spend $150 billion on clean energy over 10 years. And then he got three-fifths of the way there during his first month." In fact, the stimulus bill, which passed in the first weeks of his administration poured $90 billion into clean initiatives, and leveraged another $100 billion in private finance. The result, in part, is a jump in use of renewable energy sources. In fact, according to David Roberts at the Grist, an environmental website, "installed wind and solar have doubled in the U.S. since Obama took office."  There have also been a ratcheting up of CAFE standards for automobile manufacturers and greater government subsidies to encourage energy efficiency.

While it did little to make greens happy, Obama also allowed for expanded off-shore drilling among other steps to increase domestic energy production.  While these developments will seem little comfort when one considers that much of the country is experiencing drought conditions and the global warming continues its inexorable advance, credit must be given where credit is due. While the United States still relies on foreign oil, the trend is moving in a very different direction than it was just a few years ago. By one estimate, the United States will cut in half its reliance on Middle Eastern oil by 2020 and realistically could end it altogether by 2035. Now to be fair, all of the credit for these advances cannot be given completely to Obama -- many of them began before he took office. Still, his policies have not stood in the way, and if anything have sped them along.

All in all, while Obama has not completely upheld his campaign promises on energy policy -- he's come a lot closer than likely anyone would have expected.

Rebuilding alliances: In Obama's Reagan Building speech he called for a comprehensive diplomatic initiative to foster a "new era of international cooperation" and strengthen relationships with key allies. The tale is mixed, but there's more good than bad.  Relations with key allies in Europe and Asia have certainly improved, although Obama's pledge that he would "strengthen NATO by asking more of our allies" hasn't exactly worked out (not that anyone should be surprised).  Mitt Romney's declaration that Russia is America's number one geopolitical foe, notwithstanding, relations between the two former enemies, while hardly cheery, are certainly better.  To be sure, simply not being George W. Bush has gone a long way toward fulfilling Obama's pledge to rebuild America's overseas alliances; and at the same time there has been little re-examination in Washington of these relationships and whether they are still furthering U.S. interests. Still, promises are promises.

At the United Nations, the U.S. hasn't done much to push for Security Council reform, but as Mark Goldberg, the managing editor of U.N. Dispatch, a blog on global issues, said, if the proper criteria for judging Obama is "working within the U.N. system to produce outcomes that advance American interests and promote our values then its fair to say that tremendous efforts have been expended at the U.N." and credit is due.

As for Obama's pledge to "deepen our engagement to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict" the less said about this -- and the unwillingness of the Obama White House much of any political capital to achieve this goal -- the better. In addition, his call for doubling foreign assistance hasn't come close to being realized; neither has his pledge to make the case to the American people for more money for development assistance -- though in fairness Republicans in Congress have had something to do with this failure.

Still for the most part, this like Obama's other promises have been kept. Now none of this should lead to the conclusion that simply adhering to campaign pledges means that Obama has been a successful foreign policy president. This is especially true when one considers that any commander-in-chief will be judged, rightly, by how they respond to global events that emerge during their presidency.

For example, when Libya exploded into a full-scale civil war -- and potential humanitarian disaster -- Obama worked to assemble a global coalition and received the imprimatur of the United Nations. This was broadly consistent with his campaign pledge to foster a new era of global cooperation. At the same time, he largely ignored the role of Congress and undermined the War Powers Resolution -- something he had pledged not to do in his earliest days as a presidential candidate.

To the latter point, Obama's record on civil liberties and the so-called "secret war" while occasionally violating the letter of his campaign promises (particularly in relation to Gitmo and detention policy) has been less than solicitous to the spirit of his 2008 campaign.

So in the end, Obama has largely stuck by his campaign promises on foreign policy and national security. Whether that means he's been a good foreign policy president -- and whether it merits re-election -- will be up to voters to decide come November.

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Argument

The House of Nehru-Gandhi

India ought to consider becoming a constitutional monarchy. After all, it already has a royal family.

India will elect its 13th president on July 22, when votes cast earlier this week by about 5,000 national and state legislators are tallied. The almost certain winner is former finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, a career politician and the official candidate of the ruling Congress Party.

Though the largely ceremonial office carries little clout-the prime minister wields executive power-India's president is nonetheless the country's official head of state. Not surprisingly, the national media has giddily covered every twist and turn in Mukherjee's likely ascent to Rashtrapati Bhavan, the palatial 340-room estate completed in 1929 for the viceroy of British India. But nobody has paused to ask why India needs an elected president in the first place. Perhaps it's time the world's largest democracy considered a constitutional monarch instead.

Before dismissing the suggestion as ludicrous, consider its logic. A hereditary monarch provides the comfort of continuity against a backdrop of rapid economic and social change. The best ones also take over the brunt of ceremonial duties at both home and abroad, allowing the executive to focus on governance. And since they don't have to worry overly about faddish public opinion, monarchs are often better able to stand up for core national values such as pluralism and fair play than a career politician conditioned by reflexive attention to short term goals.

In many of the other parliamentary democracies cleaved from the Empire, Queen Elizabeth II still acts as head of state. This is probably a nonstarter for India, which is proud of its independence struggle and wary of foreign influence. Luckily, there's a closer option at hand: the nearly 100-year-old Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, led currently by Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi. Who needs to import a royal family when you have a perfectly serviceable one of your own?

Indeed, in India, the transition to monarchy would be virtually seamless. Many Indians, from captains of industry, to normally hard-bitten journalists, to star-struck society hostesses, already treat the Nehru-Gandhis like royalty. A cabal of courtiers and party officials zealously guards their privacy and shapes their public image. The family itself acts like royalty, gently floating above the rough and tumble of national discourse. They've lived in taxpayer-funded housing for more than 60 years.

With their famous last name, pan-Indian appeal, and vast experience in the public eye, the Nehru-Gandhis seem better suited to a life of ribbon-cutting and ceremonial globetrotting than many of the presidential palace's previous occupants. In power, the family expresses its patrician noblesse oblige by backing costly and inefficient welfare programs India can't afford; as purely ceremonial leaders they could continue to make the right noises but do little actual harm.

Add to this the uncertain electoral appeal of the dynasty's bumbling heir apparent, 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, and you begin to see why it may be time for India's de facto royal family to borrow a trick from Europe and leave the grubby business of politics to lesser mortals. In short, the idea of Her Royal Highness Sonia and Crown Prince Rahul makes as much sense for the family as for India.

For the most part, observers date the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty's beginnings to India's independence in 1947, when Rahul's great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) became the first prime minister. But just as John F. Kennedy's political career received a powerful boost from Joseph P. Kennedy's wealth, the young Jawaharlal owed his start to his father, Motilal Nehru (1861-1931), a prominent lawyer in the northern city of Allahabad. Motilal's deep pockets and political connections ensured that his Harrow- and Cambridge-educated son could devote himself to India's independence struggle instead of earning a living as a lawyer.

In 1919, Motilal served as Congress Party president for a year, marking the family's first milestone in national politics. But things would likely have turned out differently had independence movement leader Mohandas K. Gandhi not taken a shine to the articulate and energetic Jawaharlal. From the 1920s onward, Gandhi transformed Congress from a party of petition posting lawyers to a mass movement. At independence in 1947, the Mahatma backed Nehru to become prime minister over Sardar Patel, a leader better known for organizational skills than charisma. Nehru ruled until his death in 1964.

According to Ramachandra Guha, whose magisterial India After Gandhi is the go-to work on post-Independence history, Nehru "had no hope or desire that his daughter would succeed him." Nonetheless, the first prime minister did not dissuade his only child, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), from entering politics. She served her first term as Congress president in 1959 while her father was prime minister. Indira -- whose legendary imperiousness earned her the moniker "the Empress" -- acquired her last name through marriage to Feroze Gandhi, a minor freedom fighter unrelated to the father of the nation. But in a poor land with widespread illiteracy, the coincidence of her famous last name could not have hurt her political prospects.

Indira Gandhi came to power in 1966, two years after her father's death, as a compromise candidate of a powerful cabal of party bosses. By the time her Sikh body guards assassinated her in 1984, in retaliation for ordering troops to flush out militants from Sikhism's holiest shrine, she had firmly established the dynastic principle in Indian politics. When her favored younger son, Sanjay, died in a plane crash in 1980, his older brother, Rajiv, took his place as heir apparent. Rajiv succeeded his mother, and served one term as prime minister (1984-1989). In 1991, a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated him on the campaign trail as he sought a comeback two years after losing an election.

Rajiv Gandhi's assassination led to the longest stint of non-family rule in India's history. For seven years, his Italian-born widow, Sonia Gandhi, stayed out of active politics before taking over the party in 1998. It took another six years before she led Congress to a shock victory over the right-of-center National Democratic Alliance in 2004. Likely fearing a backlash over her foreign origin and lack of policy smarts, Sonia handed over the reins of government to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But from her perch as party leader, she nonetheless occupies the same substantive position as Rajiv, Indira, and Nehru before her: the most powerful politician in India. Key cabinet appointments, and even some senior bureaucrats, trace their authority to Gandhi -- not Singh.

And now the family's fifth generation is readying to step up. On Thursday, in response to a clamor from within Congress, Sonia's son, Rahul, a general secretary of the party and head of its youth wing, announced his readiness to take on a "larger role." Most pundits interpret this to mean either the number two spot in the Congress Party or a position in the cabinet in preparation for ascending to prime minister.

To make sense of this, let us imagine the Nehru-Gandhis as monarchs rather than modern politicians. In terms of longevity, it may not match Thailand's ruling Chakri dynasty (founded in 1782), let alone the more than 1500-year-old imperial house of Japan -- but the House of Nehru-Gandhi has already been around longer than Iran's Pahlavis managed (54 years). 2019 will mark 100 years since the family patriarch Motilal first became president of the Congress Party for a one-year term.

India already treats the family like royalty. Take, for example, the delicate matter of Sonia Gandhi's health. Earlier this month, the Brookings Institution's Bruce Riedel wondered why India's normally rambunctious press showed so little interest in what ailment has led her to leave India for treatment abroad at least twice in the past year. Why aren't more journalists asking if the most powerful person in the country is seriously ill and if so, in which country she is being treated? The answer: an invisible code similar to Thailand's more formal lèse-majesté laws governs coverage of India's first family. Quite simply, the subject is taboo.

Or how about the fact that even though he has been a member of Parliament for eight years, nobody is quite sure what Rahul Gandhi stands for. Does India's heir apparent believe the country has reformed its economy too fast or too slow? How closely should New Delhi hew to his great grandfather's foreign policy of non-alignment? Is the Maoist insurgency active in large swathes of central and eastern India an existential threat to the nation or an exaggerated one?

Since ideology in a family-based party is whatever the family thinks, this matters. In an unusual burst of candor earlier this month, senior Congress Party leader and Law Minister Salman Khurshid declared that "we need an ideology to be given by our next generation leader Rahul Gandhi to move forward." Indeed, it's hard to think of any major politicians in the democratic world who share their views as sparingly with the press or in parliament. But if they were titular rulers, such reticence would be par for the course.

To be sure, we do know that Sonia Gandhi shares her late mother-in-law's populist streak. But that's only because she chairs the National Advisory Council, a powerful kitchen cabinet of activists and do-gooders that has driven programs like a spendthrift multi-billion-dollar rural government job guarantee and a proposal to offer subsidized food grains to most of the population. Leading economists such as Columbia University's Arvind Panagariya blame these redistributionist policies for contributing to India's poor fiscal health -- and the economic slowdown over the past year suggests that the country would indeed be better off if the family's noble sentiments are channeled in a less destructive manner. No Briton has to worry that an unelected cabal around the Queen will suddenly rejigger the National Health Service or decide that everyone deserves a lifetime supply of free fish and chips.

There's more to the idea of a Nehru-Gandhi monarchy than conforming to social reality in India or warding off batty policy ideas. Quite simply, for all its drawbacks, the family would do a better job than most recent Indian presidents. Thanks to generations of marriage outside their small Kashmiri Brahmin community and a long stint in the public eye, the Nehru-Gandhis are pan-Indian figures, not closely identified with any particular region or caste. In a country as dizzyingly diverse as India, that's preferable to the current system of rotating quotas that resemble a cross between U.S. affirmative action and the EU presidency. (Mukherjee, a Bengali Brahmin, will follow Patil, a Maratha woman, who followed A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, a Tamil Muslim, etc.)

What's more, over the decades, Indian taxpayers have already footed the bill for billions of dollars worth of airports, universities, roads, and government programs named after members of the dynasty. As power devolves to the states, regional identities rise to the fore, and integration into the global economy causes social dislocation, a pan-Indian monarch with instant name recognition may have a calming presence. Thanks to a quirk of history, and their own clever exertions over the decades, no other family in India is nearly as qualified to perform this role as the Nehru-Gandhis.

Then there's the matter of international diplomacy. Even their most ardent foes will concede that the Nehru-Gandhis carry themselves with grace and quiet dignity. They have suffered a Kennedyesque history of personal tragedy without flinching, and without displaying signs of bitterness toward their adversaries. They also happen to carry the most famous last name in South Asia. These are attributes that a fast developing but still poor country like India could use. A Queen Sonia or Prince Rahul could open doors for Indian business and buff India's image abroad.

Why, you might ask, would the Nehru-Gandhis be interested in such a course of action? Why settle for pomp when you can have power? For one, judging by the Congress-led government's performance over the past eight years, the family may be in over their heads. Sonia Gandhi's attempt to devolve day-to-day administration to Singh hasn't worked, and his government has become a byword for drift and indecision.

Meanwhile, Rahul comes across as a Prince Charles-like figure, essentially well-meaning but out of sync with the world. His policy-related comments and actions tend to be episodic and weirdly self-absorbed. One day he's in the wilds of Orissa pledging to be a soldier in Delhi for tribals, the next he's in Mumbai staring down a local chauvinistic party by riding a public train. Justice for the victims of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks may be a central plank of Indian foreign policy, but in 2009, according to a leaked Wikileaks cable, Rahul told U.S. ambassador Timothy Roemer that he worried more about attacks by Hindus. And last year, he alleged that there were mass graves of farmers in Uttar Pradesh state outside Delhi. None turned up. Some pundits compare him unfavorably with his younger sister, Priyanka Vadra, who is supposed to have inherited her grandmother's star appeal.

Rahul's big project over the past few years has been to revitalize the youth wing of his party. But he doesn't appear to be cutting much ice with voters. In Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two pivotal Hindi belt states where the young Gandhi helmed Congress's campaign over the past two years, the party won only 32 out of 646 seats, or 5 percent In his defense, the party has been gutted in these states over the past two decades by the rise of regional and caste-based parties, and it's virtually impossible to rebuild an organization overnight. But even so, politics is a cutthroat business and it's not clear for how long Gandhi's colleagues will keep faith in him if he can't improve his vote-catching abilities. A Plan B may be in order.

Of course, realistically speaking, India is about as likely to embrace constitutional monarchy as Saudi Arabia is to become a hippie commune. But even if the Kingdom of India won't be represented at the United Nations anytime soon, viewing the country's dysfunctional politics through the prism of medieval monarchy -- rather than modern democracy -- might at least help make more sense of it all.

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