As I have noted in the past, the secret to success in any job is picking the right predecessor. In that respect, Barack Obama did brilliantly. Outperforming George W. Bush on foreign-policy, to say the least, was hardly the greatest challenge confronting Obama when he took office.
Indeed, much of Obama's foreign policy has consisted of undoing the damage that Bush did or alternatively, unwinding bad policy choices in favor of better ones. That's not to say there are not some similarities between their policies but rather there are nonetheless a number of important Obama policies were reactions to or corrections for those of Bush.
Leaving Iraq, refocusing on AfPak, preparing to leave Afghanistan, restoring relations with our European allies, refocusing our priorities away from the War on Terror, pursuing a more targeted, lower risk, higher return policy of going after high end terrorists, shifting from unilateralism to multilateralism in instances like Libya, rebalancing to make Asia the top U.S. foreign-policy priority ... all these speak to the benefit of not behaving like the Bush administration. (Again, I know the Bush administration was planning on leaving Iraq, too. But that happened to be an instance of the Bush administration seeking to distance themselves from, well, themselves.)
To achieve these goals has required more than just changing the guy in the Oval Office or the folks around him. It has required more than just taking old Bush policy papers, reading their conclusions and doing something different. It has involved a degree of disciplined policy formation and program management that actually, deliberately began by taking a page or two out of the Bush handbook ... not the George W. Bush handbook, however, but that created by his father and his national security team, led by General Brent Scowcroft.
Current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon explicitly acknowledges that the Scowcroft model and structure was a source of much of the initial organization of the Obama team, with the NSC staff organization, principals' meetings, deputies' meetings and working group meetings following George H.W. Bush era precedents.
But even a proven structure won't work if the President and his team do not have the discipline to work within it. The George W. Bush process did not; the President enabled the creation of back channels that were taken advantage of by both the Vice President and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and the result -- even in the eyes of top Bush officials -- was muddled and sometimes profoundly flawed execution.
Barack Obama however, made up for his lack of prior foreign policy experience, by both picking very experienced advisors and then by insisting upon a rigorous process. Daily national security staff meetings, regular meetings focusing on major strategic issues, over 200 principals meetings to date, over 700 deputies meetings, close coordination -- especially since the arrival of Donilon as National Security Advisor -- among the cabinet principals (weekly meetings between Donilon and the Secretaries of State and Defense), all have contributed to this. So too has an equally disciplined regular evaluation of progress, the self-grading by the President and his team of their own conduct of foreign policy that makes clear how they want to adapt and alter their priorities and international efforts. Decisions are made promptly, cabinet members know that Donilon has the ear of the President and can get responses in real time, and even with the usual issues of competing and bruised egos associated with every NSC, the Obama team has developed a comparatively high functioning relationship -- among the best since the Scowcroft era.
Today, even as they are enjoying recent successes including those associated with the unlamented ends of Bin Laden, Al Awlaki and Qaddafi, the Obama NSC team is working to identify next generation issues and to better address difficult problems -- like Iran -- where they clearly feel they can do better going forward.
Having said all that, they do face one problem that all administrations must grapple with after several years in office. That is that going forward they are their own predecessor. In other words, they are no longer in the undoing or post-Bush phase of their presidency. From now on in most cases they will be seen as their authors of their own circumstances. While the world is sure to throw them curveballs, they own the headlines for the remainder of their tenure in office.
The challenge is further complicated by the fact that withdrawing from Iraq or Afghanistan or conducting military strikes against terrorists are the comparatively easy parts of their agenda. The next set of challenges they face -- in post-revolutionary Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in post-withdrawal Iraq and Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Syria, with the Israelis and the Palestinians, with regard to Europe's financial crisis, and in terms of American influence in Asia or on important transnational issues -- will all require that the United States replicate the key elements of the approaches that have brought success to the administration in Libya and hunting terrorists. In other words, they must set disciplined, narrow, achievable goals that can be achieved largely through a very limited U.S. outlay of resources that is complemented with the contributions and active participation of international allies. Tough as mastering that formula has been in Libya or Afghanistan, it is going to be even tougher when it comes to providing the aid needed to foster growth and solidify constructive changes in the wake of the Arab Spring or pressuring Iran or piecing together initiatives to stave off international economic calamity.
In other words, while the president and his team deserve great credit for their achievements to date, they will almost certainly find that it is easier to launch an "Obama doctrine" than to live with one -- especially if the U.S. Congress insists on the kind of reckless cuts to U.S. aid budgets that the leaders of the opposition party are promoting. (Why is it that those who are the most eager to go to war are often the ones who lack the necessary fortitude or vision to win the peace?)
The good news is that after Tom Donilon's promising first full year as National Security Advisor, the President has a national security process that is effective, orderly and has produced material successes. The bad news is that foreign policy is the ultimate "what have you done for me lately?" business.
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