Obama’s Mid-Term Report Card


Today marks the second anniversary of Barack Obama’s inauguration as president and, thus, the halfway mark of his term.   How’s he doing so far?

The easy answer is to give him an Incomplete.  After all, it takes a long time to see the results of policy changes.  Nonetheless, based on what we know so far, here’s how I’d grade him in several key areas of foreign affairs.


Many of us have rightly chided the administration for putting the transatlantic relationship on the back burner. Whether it’s skipping important summit meetings or giving short shrift to the Special Relationship with the UK, the decline in attention to our traditional Allies has been marked.

Despite this, there has been genuine achievement.  The Lisbon Summit was a great success, showing an Alliance at least speaking from the same page despite enormous resource constraints and domestic pressures.  While NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen deserves the lion’s share of the credit, none of it would have been possible without Obama on board.


The administration has managed to simultaneously double down on the mission and undermine confidence in America’s commitment to it.

After months of hedging in the press, the administration agreed to and implemented a major troop surge, facilitating an escalation in the tempo of the fight.  The predictable result has been operational success, at least in the short term, at the cost of radically more American casualties.

But, for reasons inexplicable other than through the vagaries of domestic politics, the surge came with an absurdly short and vague deadline:  July 2011.  This signaled to our enemies, Afghan partners, and NATO Allies that the administration was looking for a quick exit.  And yet it remains unclear what, if anything, is to happen seven months from now.   All present indications are that precisely nothing will change at that juncture.

Meanwhile, the administration has agreed with the Karzai government that the real deadline is the end of 2014, at which point the goal is for the Afghans to be handling the entire combat and security operation on their own, with Western personnel remaining in an advisory, logistical, and intelligence role.  This date was also agreed to at Lisbon.  Then again, it looks very much as if only the US and UK will have significant forces in combat much longer.

The bottom line is that America and its allies are committed for several more years — and presumably hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives — fighting a war with murky goals and dubious chance of success.  


Osama bin Laden still hasn’t been captured; then again, it’s not certain whether he’s still alive.    His organization continues to mount minor operations around the world but they’re more scattered, with the central leadership decimated and seemingly not controlling those who operate under the brand.

Meanwhile, the Bush era "Global War on Terror" is gone, at least in name.  It’s been replaced by the more generic "Overseas Contingency Operation."

Otherwise, though, not much has changed.  The United States continues to use drone strikes, despite cries from experts about creating more terrorists than they kill, wherever targets president themselves, notably in Pakistan’s tribal areas in, lately, Yemen.


Perhaps the most obvious change that Obama was supposed to bring was repairing the damage to America’s standing abroad done by its predecessor while feeling its way through the post-9/11 landscape.  The lowest hanging fruit was closing the detainment camp at Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.    

Despite signing an order on his first full day in office committing to doing this within a year, it has not happened and quite likely will not happen.  Here, both the complication of the situation and domestic politics got in the way.  Once detained, the prisoners became a problem that the United States had to deal with and there simply was no good solution for a handful of them, simultaneously too dangerous to set free, too difficult to try in court, and unwanted by anyone else.  And, it turned out, no Congressman or Senator wanted these people in prisons in their district or state.

Renditions and torture have apparently stopped.  Then again, Bush and Cheney had long since stopped them.

Meanwhile, Team Obama has decided that it wasn’t such a bad idea after all for the executive to have enormous discretion in matters of surveillance, secrecy, and detention.  


Almost certainly the foreign policy issue most responsible for Obama’s rapid rise, the Iraq War, is fizzling to a close without most of us much noticing.   While the debate tore the nation from late 2002 through early 2008, the so-called Surge either worked or coincided fortuitously with forces coming together and settling the situation down.  By the time Obama took office, President Bush had long signed a status of forces agreement and otherwise set in motion a chain of events that would wind the American presence down.   And it’s doing just that, albeit not without sporadic flashes of violence.


The Bush Administration, to the annoyance of most of the foreign policy establishment, put the so-called Peace Process on the furthest back burner after the 9/11 attacks.  With great fanfare, his successor re-ignited it.   As pretty much always happens, the intractable situation proved itself intractable and the process fizzled.

Grading on this matter must always be on a curve.   We can give him an A for effort and a gentleman’s C for results; let’s call it a B- overall. 


Like Bush, Obama repeatedly calls the prospect of Iran’s getting a nuclear weapon "unacceptable."   Like Bush, Obama seems to be accepting it as inevitable, given the lack of options.

Recent news that the mysterious Stuxnet worm, which reportedly set back Iran’s program, was a project of the Israeli government, with the assumption of U.S. backing, bumps the grade up a bit. 


The most controversial foreign policy moment of the campaign, Obama’s assertion that he would agree to "unconditional" talks with the likes of Kim Jong Il, has proven not to much matter.  There has been no "reset" with Pyongyang.   The nuclear situation remains complicated and American options limited.


Call it a Gentleman’s C.  

He began with absurdly outsized expectations, partly of his own making.   He was going to radically transform America’s relations with allies and adversaries alike.   But, while he remains much more admired in most capitals than his predecessor, he has nonetheless pursued essentially the same policies.  Which shouldn’t have surprised anyone:  Like Bush, he’s America’s president and represents American interests.

Further, he inherited a near impossible situation.  The country was engaged in two long wars.  The one in Iraq was winding down but the one in Afghanistan had been neglected.  And the global economic crisis was much deeper than he or most anyone else fathomed.  

Then again, he has the luxury of being graded against that backdrop and following an epically unpopular president.  

In any case, he’s likely got another twelve to fifteen months to change perceptions at home, else today will mark the halfway point in his presidency, not just this term.   Americans have tended to re-elect their presidents, though, and this one has demonstrated exceptional skills as a campaigner.    Absent a calamity on the scale of the 9/11 attacks, though, Obama’s fate will likely be decided on job growth and other economic issues rather than anything on this list.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.  

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