Year One: How Did Obama Do on Foreign Policy?

The Obama administration banned torture, worked toward nuclear disarmament, and lifted the global gag rule... but also escalated U.S. military operations. John Feffer gives it a C minus.
Obama posters, photo by Thomas Frank

One year after his inauguration, many of President Obama's supporters are looking for more change.

Photo by Thomas Frank

By one estimate at least, Barack Obama has had the most successful first year of any president in recent history. According to Congressional Quarterly, Obama scored a 96.7 percent success rate in getting his agenda through Congress. Only Lyndon Johnson came close, with 93 percent in his first year. Although Republican opposition to the president was cohesive and frequently strident, the president was able to take advantage of sizable Democratic majorities in Congress—as well as the arm-twisting of Rahm "Art of the Possible" Emanuel—to push through measures to stabilize the economy and extend health care coverage. The president didn't just rely on Congress. As Politifact points out, Obama fulfilled a large number of campaign promises through executive order.

So, given this impressive record, why have I given the president a C- on his first year foreign policy in our new IPS report Barely Making the Grade?

For one thing, unlike domestic policy, foreign policy does not depend heavily on congressional legislation. So, while the president gets high marks for his savvy on Capitol Hill, it's largely immaterial to his record on global issues.

Second, Obama indeed fulfilled a number of his campaign promises on foreign policy—and that was part of the problem. After all, Obama the candidate promised to focus on the war in Afghanistan, and he has done so. He promised to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps, and he has kept that promise by pushing for a modest but still significant increase in military spending. By keeping these promises, the president has undercut the rest of his agenda. The escalation of war in Afghanistan undermines his overtures to the Muslim world. His increases in military spending strain the overall budget and put the funding of his ambitious domestic agenda in peril.

If you add both to the escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan and U.S. involvement in Yemen, Obama has, however reluctantly, assumed the mantle of a war president.

In the blogosphere at least, some have given the president a failing grade because his foreign policy too closely resembles that of his predecessor. But that is unfair. The Obama administration's first year had several high points. Its early decision to ban torture immediately opened up distance from the Bush years. Its commitment to nuclear disarmament is unprecedented for a U.S. administration. The lifting of the global gag rule that restricted U.S. funding for family planning was a welcome shift in policy. The about-turn on missile defense bases in Poland and Czechoslovakia was a dose of common sense.

Barack Obama has turned out to be the Goldilocks president—not too hot, not too cold but just right in the comfortable center. His middling grade of C- reflects his fundamental ambivalence. Every bold initiative was accompanied by a failure of nerve or follow-through. The "war on terror" is over, but the administration wages practically the same campaign under a different name. We've pledged to pay our arrears to the UN, but haven't yet come in from the cold by signing the treaties on landmines, child soldiers, law of the seas, International Criminal Court, and others. Torture is banned, but extraordinary rendition remains on the books.

Then there's Guantánamo. One year ago, Obama promised that the detention facility would be closed by now. "Now there's talk that the prison will remain open at least through 2010," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Frida Berrigan. "And the proposal to move detainees to a maximum security prison in Illinois superficially retires Guantánamo as a symbol, while retaining the legal problems it embodies. Equally troubling is the administration's expansion of detention facilities in Afghanistan that are almost impenetrable for lawyers and humanitarian groups."

"Give him a break," Obama's boosters say. "It's only been one year!"

Obama certainly needs more time to work on the existential threats facing the planet, such as nuclear weapons and climate change. And no one expected him to turn around the global economy after one year.

But Obama promised bold change, not simply change around the edges. He stretched the definition of what is politically possible when he ran for and attained the highest office in the land. Was it too much to expect that he would continue to stretch that definition, even over the objections of his cautious staff, once he occupied the Oval Office?

There is still plenty of time for bold initiatives. "As the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses after China, the United States could take the lead in climate negotiations by promising to reduce emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050," I write in my foreign policy report card. "As the country most responsible for the financial deregulation that threw the global economy into recession, the United States could take the lead by supporting the Tobin tax on financial transactions. As the world's biggest military spender, the United States could freeze and then cut the Pentagon budget, challenging other big spenders to do the same."

On the issue of trade, Obama could throw his weight behind by the TRADE Act, introduced in the Senate by Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and in the House by Representative Mike Michaud (D-Maine). "The majority of House Democrats support this act," writes FPIF senior analyst Mark Engler in report card on trade. "If passed, it would require a review of existing trade pacts such as NAFTA and the WTO, and it would spell out guidelines for making labor and environmental protections central parts of future trade deals."

Obama didn't fail in his first year, nor did he make the dean's list. He worked hard, but he didn't achieve his full potential. Of course, the successes and the failures of the first year don't rest solely on his shoulders. Great presidents, after all, can't do it alone.

It takes an electorate.

:: It's time to leave behind old ideas of superpowers. A changing world brings new opportunities for peace and the chance to join a community of nations.

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