Obama Foreign Policy Report Card

The editors at Foreign Policy magazine used the occasion of the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s election as president to ask a “a group of experts” to grade President Obama’s foreign policy performance.   I was honored to be among the graders.

My B-minus was exactly in line with the consensus:  “Obama scored only an average of a B-: five As, nine Bs, four Cs, and five Ds.”

President Barack Obama inherited two unpopular wars and a global financial crisis. Despite mostly continuing President George W. Bush’s policies, he’s rebooted America’s image in the world and avoided most of the landmines. His top-level foreign policy staff — from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Jim Jones to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to the State Department’s Anne-Marie Slaughter — is superb. While I seriously questioned his choice of Hillary Clinton to become secretary of state, she’s mostly been solid. That said, he’s made some serious missteps on the security front with Afghanistan and Iran, and his relationship with Europe is not nearly as strong as it should be, given the warmth with which his election was received.

Afghanistan: C-. Obama carried out his campaign pledge to send more troops and to put more emphasis on the war but he quickly lost confidence and now seems mired in a struggle over grand strategy. He fired a competent general to replace him with another, presumably to double-down on counterinsurgency, and turned around three months later to question his own general’s recommendations for carrying out the obvious implications of said strategy.

Europe: B. Obama came into office with a huge popularity boost and was viewed as a breath of fresh air after eight years of Bush. But he’s fumbled the “special relationship” with Britain and has raised serious doubts in Eastern Europe. See my recent article for a detailed explanation.

Iran: C+. Jim Jones’ pronouncement that we could live with a nuclear Iran was a welcome step down from the previous talk about it being “unacceptable.” Unfortunately, the situation has been largely bungled from there, with Obama having seemingly returned to his campaign trail Pollyannaish view of the power of chit-chat.

My colleague Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, also gave him a B-minus.

President Barack Obama’s momentous election heralded a change in U.S. foreign policy and raised expectations of revolutionary developments around the globe. He certainly lifted the dialogue to a new and higher moral level and promised engagement. But progress has been evolutionary, not revolutionary, because U.S. policy is rooted in national interests that do not change dramatically with a change in the occupant of the White House. This has been difficult for people around the world to understand. Regarding the Middle East and the Muslim world in general, Obama’s rhetoric has resonated more abroad than at home. He must change the discussion at home, not just to ensure Israel’s security but also guarantee implementation of Palestinian rights within a tight time frame. On Iran and India, he missed an opportunity to give Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a larger canvas to ply his skills by handing over Iran to a separate envoy and ceding to India’s pressures to exclude that country from the important dialogue on Afghanistan. Its problems can only be solved by taking a regional approach and drawing in the major neighbors: India, Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Russia, and China. Restricting Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced his ability to move all the chess pieces in the game.

Also, in Afghanistan, there is no savvy civilian equivalent of Gen. Stanley McChrystal representing the transatlantic view and strengthening the hand of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry with his Afghan hosts. (Paging “Dr.” Ryan Crocker!) And no Afghan voice has been brought into the discussion of the Afghan strategy. There is still time to save the situation before domestic electoral agendas take over in 2010 and then again in 2011. America’s first “global president” who promised the world an impossible dream must strive to avoid settling for the politically possible. He inherited multiple chess games and is moving from crisis to crisis at home and abroad. So, how well has he done? As my high school principal in Rawalpindi, the Rev. “Paddy” Byrne, used to pronounce on most report cards: Needs Improvement. For his high aims but relatively slow results to date, one can give Obama an A for effort but only a C+ for promised actions to date. Overall score: B-. This is an interim grade. The spring semester might produce better results at home and perhaps abroad.

Feel free to provide your grades and analysis in the comments below.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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