'Tis the season of snap judgments on President Obama's first 100 days in office, replete with scorecards, grading sheets, and cartoon thumbs pointing up or down. The temptation with such analyses is simply to generate a laundry list of accomplishments, as if a crowded agenda or a flurry of decisions connotes successful leadership. Under normal circumstances, the key measure tends to be "traction," as in, Did the new administration hit the ground running on issues A through Z?
But these aren't normal times.
Beyond Tom's column, check out the whole theme at WPR:
May 05, 2009
The Curtain Rises: Obama's Opening Act
At the symbolic 100-day threshhold of the Obama presidency, World Politics Review asked five prominent foreign policy commentators to offer their take on the initial direction of President Obama's foreign policy.
+ The Obama Bubble: Buying Time for Renewed American Engagement, By Steve Clemons
Steve Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note.
+ Obama and U.S. Strategy: A New Beginning, By Anthony H. Cordesman
Arab-Israeli Peace Settlement and Relations with the Muslim World
There was little the President could do quickly to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace settlement in the face of a Palestinian leadership divided against itself, an Israel turning towards hawkish hardliners in its election, and the broader divisions within the Arab world. He did, however, appoint Sen. George Mitchell as his new peace negotiator shortly after taking office, and described his approach to relations with the Muslim world in an interview with Al Arabiya on Jan. 27: "My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. . . . My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy." President Obama later gave a major speech in Turkey on April 6, in which he made it clear the U.S. would work closely with that leading democratic state with an Islamic government, and would continue to press for the Turkey's admission to the EU.
The ideological aspects of counterterrorism are as critical to a successful strategy as tangible action. President Obama and Secretary Clinton made it clear that the U.S. was conscious that the "global war on terrorism" had been perceived by many in the Muslim world as anti-Arab and anti-Islam. The administration stopped using the term, and focused instead on individual terrorist and jihadist movements.
It is still far from clear, however, how successful such efforts will be on a lasting basis, or how they will change the structure of global cooperation in counterterrorism. But they were a new beginning in an area where poll after poll showed that the Bush administration had alienated much of the Islamic world.
Iran and the Gulf
The new administration reached out to Iran in several ways, although it did so carefully and with great reservations about how much progress could be made both before the upcoming Iranian presidential election and without a major shift in the attitudes of the Iranian leadership.
The president gave a Nowruz speech on March 19 calling for better relations, and senior U.S. officials sent signals by "encountering" Iranian officials. The U.S. said it would now talk to Iran along with the Europeans, Russia, and China about Iran's nuclear programs, and invited Iran to a conference on aid to Afghanistan that Iran attended. The administration also sent signals making it clear that the U.S. continued to oppose an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
At the same time, the U.S. made it clear that it would continue its alliance with Israel and the southern Gulf states, and strongly opposed Iranian proliferation and support of extremist movements. The president made it clear in an announcement on March 11 that he would continue sanctions and other efforts to block arms and technology sales to Iran.
Japan and Northeast Asia
President Obama personally reaffirmed the U.S. strategic partnerships with Japan, in a phone call to Prime Minister Aso of Japan on Jan. 29, and with South Korea, during a meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in London on April 2.
As he did with most of the world's leaders, President Obama reached out to the leadership of China shortly after taking office, and later met with President Hu Jintao of China on the sidelines of the G-20 Financial Summit in London, on April 1. The two heads of state agreed to establish a "U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue" to "further deepen mutually beneficial cooperation in a wide range of areas, including economy and trade, counterterrorism, law enforcement, science and technology, education, culture and health." They also agreed on the need for stimulus packages to deal with the global economic crisis and the need to restructure the international financial system.
In addition, they agreed to resume and expand consultations on non-proliferation and other international security topics; to improve and develop military-to-military relations; and to work together for the settlement of conflicts and reduction of tensions that contribute to global and regional instability. While this agreement was longer on words than on any immediate substance, it made it clear that the U.S. was seeking cooperation rather than rivalry.
The administration made it clear that it would continue the Six Party negotiations designed to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, and to find ways to bring North Korea into a more normal relationship with its neighbors and the U.S.
At the same time, the administration did not soften its opposition to North Korean proliferation and threats, and worked with the U.N., NATO, and nations like China to try to stop North Korea from a new long-range missile launch that it cloaked as a satellite launch program. The president also issued a formal statement opposing the launch and North Korea's failure to end its threats and efforts at proliferation on April 5.
Energy and the Environment
President Obama made it clear that he intended to take a stronger stand on dealing with alternative energy issues, energy independence, and environmental issues like global warming than the Bush administration. He also advanced what the White House called an "Obama-Biden comprehensive New Energy Plan for America." At the same time, there was little apparent substance to this rhetoric. The features of the plan were largely exhortative, with little indication that it could ever meet its ambitious goals.
Every president since the Ford administration has called for progress towards energy independence without advancing credible plans for achieving it.
"Accomplishments" versus Beginnings, Concepts, and Intentions
This long list of shifts in U.S. national security policy and strategy only covers part of President Obama's first 100 days. It does not include changes in the new administration's approach to issues like Cuba, its overall strategic posture toward Latin America or Africa, its concern with the impact of the global financial crisis on low-income states, or even relations with the full range of key strategic partners and states, such as India.
It is equally important to stress that this list of "accomplishments" is largely a list of beginnings, concepts, and intentions. It will be years before it will be fully clear what many of them really mean in terms of tangible actions and "facts on the ground." Most of the issues that the Obama Administration has tried to deal with in its first 100 days are at least a quarter-century old, and many date back for more than half a century.
There are many areas where the prospects for success in meeting the president's goals are limited, or where outside pressures may force the U.S. to change its policies and strategies. It is also a fundamental reality of every aspect of national security policy that good intentions are ultimately irrelevant unless they are followed by successful actions. Once again, a nation's national security strategy -- and indeed its security -- is not defined by what it declares, but rather by what it does.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. He is also a national security analyst for ABC News, and the author of more than 50 books. He has served as national security assistant to Sen. John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee, director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as in numerous government positions, including at the Department of State, Department of Energy, and NATO International Staff. Cordesman has been awarded the Department of Defense Distinguished Service Medal.
+ Obama's First Steps: What Comes After the 'Listening Phase'? By Nikolas Gvosdev
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College.
+ Obama's Folly: Courting Our Enemies and Criticizing Ourselves, By Joshua Muravchik
Joshua Muravchik is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His newest book, "The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East," will be released by Encounter in May.
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