My esteemed colleague Steve Walt writes today that Obama is in trouble for 2012 in part because he's "0 for 4 on the big ticket items that have defined his foreign policy agenda." I've got to disagree. There may be no full-scale successes yet --- as if anybody thought Obama could solve the world's problems in a year and half --- but he's actually doing far better than Walt suggests. Specifically, I'd largely agree with Walt on Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, but both Iraq and Iran are more likely to be winners than losers. Beyond that, though, Obama will gain in stature by comparison with the lunacy currently dominating the Republican political establishment --- which will likely only escalate as the political season develops and every GOP wannabe tries to outbid on the crazy.
Here's my revised scorecard, following Walt's list:
1. Iraq. Obama is on track to deliver on his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq --- something which voters might begin to notice next month when they discover that he has also met his promise to get down to 50,000 troops. He's already almost there, without anyone really paying attention, and he has admirably resisted all pressure and temptation to relax the timeline in the face of the political paralysis of Iraq's political class. What's more, Iraqi security forces and state institutions have proven quite robust during the extended political crisis, and the general security trends are not nearly as dire as the headlines would suggest. Iraq should be a major positive for 2012 if Obama makes the case, as I'm sure he will: he kept his promise on his signature policy initiative and it has worked out pretty well.
And the GOP alternative is.... staying longer? I don't see that as a political winner.
2. Iran. While I would have liked to see more robust engagement back at the start of the administration, and less of a rush to the pressure track, the fact is that Iran today is far weaker and more isolated than it was when Obama took office. He successfully built multilateral support for sanctions, and by all accounts the sanctions (including the additional unilateral ones) are starting to have a real effect. He seems to have effectively convinced the Israelis to not jump the gun. There's a long way to go until 2012, but Iran should look like a policy winner by then. Pretty much the only two outcomes which could turn Iran into a disaster are either a successful nuclear test or a rash military strike by Israel or the U.S. I don't think either is likely. There's a chance for a major positive development, such as Ahmedenejad being driven from power and/or a major uranium exchange deal, but even the status quo of a weaker, isolated Iran will look pretty good.
And the GOP alternative is... war? I don't see that as a political winner.
3. Israel-Palestine. OK, I'll go with Walt on this one. I don't see this really going anywhere, direct talks or no direct talks. I'm glad that the Gaza blockade has been somewhat eased, but that's probably not enough for a passing grade. The real question here, to which I don't have an answer, is how salient this issue will be come 2012.
4. Afghanistan. I'm also not feeling very good about this one. But the one ray of hope I see is that David Petraeus will try to do in Afghanistan what he really did in Iraq, not what popular mythology says he did in Iraq: cut deals with local forces and find a way to stabilize the situation just enough to be able to draw down and leave a reasonably stable state behind even if few of the deeper long-term political or institutional problems are solved. I'm not optimistic, though, and agree that I don't see any way this is a political winner in 2012.
But again, the Republican alternative is... what? More troops for longer? Or is it taking off the gloves and killing more people? Or is it time to get out of Obama's failed war? I lose track.
So my scoring is 2-4 on what Walt calls the signature issues --- and batting .500 gets you into the Hall of Fame. But there's more -- the nuclear non-proliferation stuff is kind of a big deal, for example, and if START goes through could be a major accomplishment I have my doubts about the Republicans allowing anything at all to go through the Senate if they can stop it, but that would only fuel the argument about GOP irresponsibility). I would balance that out with my dismay over the failure to close Guantanamo and other civil liberties issues, but in the end all those issues together are probably a wash. Let's say that overall he's batting a bit over .300, with disappointing power numbers -- not Hall of Fame, but pretty darned solid.
What isn't, though, is the question of Islam. Republicans seem to be hell-bent on competing over who can be the fiercest advocates of a clash of civilizations, the toughest on Muslims, the most outrageous in their bashing of Islam. That may please the fever swamps, but I think (or maybe just hope) that it will play extremely poorly with most Americans. It's not just the clear national security imperative to build strong, positive relations with Muslims at home and abroad, and to avoid strengthening al-Qaeda's narrative of a clash of civilizations. It's not just about the security needs in counter-terrorism, where the Muslim-Americans most offended by right-wing bigotry are the main bulwark against radicalization in their communities. It's that the right-wing campaigns are so deeply and fundamentally contrary to American values. America is exceptional for its acceptance of faith in public life and for its tolerance of different religions within a common national identity. While the GOP base may thrill at the escalating anti-Islamic rhetoric, most mainstream Americans will recoil when this hits prime time. It may not look like it right now, but I think that the rising anti-Islamic trend on the right will backfire by highlighting its true extremism, if not downright lunacy.
So I will have to respectfully disagree with Steve's coding of the dataset. Obama gets far better marks on foreign policy, especially with regard to how it will play in the 2012 elections. Of course a lot can happen between now and then, good and bad, but on current trends he should be looking pretty good. Especially in comparison to the alternative.