Obama and the United States: One Year After the Elections

Speech to the Centro Studi Americani Conference

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

This speech was given on November 18, 2009 in Rome, Italy.

Upon assuming office in January 2009, President Barack Obama was confronted with a number of interrelated foreign policy and domestic challenges. The United States was involved in two wars that did not appear to have a satisfactory end game nor the support of the American people. These wars not only strained our ground forces to the breaking point but undermined our standing in the world, even among traditional allies like Germany and Turkey, not to mention the Muslim world. Moreover, they were bankrupting us at home since we had to borrow over a trillion dollars to finance the direct costs of the war and had incurred indirect costs of over $4 trillion.

Our relations with Russia were badly strained as a result of the Bush administration’s plan to deploy missiles and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic, and their initiative to expand NATO into Georgia and Ukraine in the near future. Finally, as a result of the erratic diplomacy of the Bush administration, Iran and North Korea were close to becoming nuclear powers, and the nuclear nonproliferation and climate change regimes were in tatters.

Meanwhile, at home, our economy was in a tailspin, as the practice of both the people and government living beyond their means finally caught up with us. Pumping borrowed stimulus funds into the economy to prevent another great depression not only made it politically and economically more difficult to fund our overseas engagements but made Americans question the necessity of these engagements in the first place.

Finally, President Obama took office at a time when the age of American hegemony had ended. While that period, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, would have eventually ended, the actions of Obama’s predecessor, who squandered American economic, military, and political power, accelerated that decline. In less than a year, President Obama has moved to deal with these problems quickly and decisively, and reversed the decline in American security. Like his efforts at home, he has put us on the path to recovery in the area of foreign policy.

In Afghanistan, the situation was—according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—serious and deteriorating. People in the region, especially in Pakistan, worried about our staying power, particularly since the Bush administration had put the war on the backburner and refused even to consider the requests of Generals Dan McNeill and David McKiernan for more troops. Within two months after taking office, Obama made his intentions clear by doubling the number of troops, placing one of the military’s most accomplished generals in charge, and asking him to make a no-holds-barred assessment of the situation.

Using that assessment, plus inputs from his experienced foreign policy team—including a secretary of defense who has served six American presidents and directed the CIA, a former NATO commander, and this country’s most effective diplomat—he is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of his next steps, something the previous administration never did before invading Iraq. Moreover, his decision to increase the forces in and focus on Afghanistan has no doubt had an impact on Pakistan’s decision to finally go after the Taliban in their country and along the border with Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the Bush administration, on its way out the door, had signed the strategic framework agreement, which obligated us to withdraw our forces from cities and towns by June 30, 2009 and from the country completely by December 31, 2011. But it had not developed a plan for moving the 57 brigade equivalents or the millions of pieces of equipment out of the country over the next three years. Working with General Raymond Odierno, the commander of our forces in Iraq, Obama developed a plan to wait until after the Iraqi elections in January to begin to withdraw the bulk of our combat troops and replace half of them with advisory and assistance brigades with enough firepower to protect U.S. forces, diplomats, and aid workers, as well as to work with the Iraqi forces during our remaining time in the country. The plan has worked so well that Odierno has actually accelerated the withdrawal pace because our setting out a plan to leave has convinced the Iraqis that we are in fact leaving, thus diminishing their incentive to attack U.S. forces.

Our relationship with a resurgent Russia was badly strained, primarily because of the ill-advised scheme to place long-range missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, rightly characterized it as a weapons system that has not been proven to work, against a threat that does not exist, to protect people who have not asked to be protected. By scrapping this system, which the Russians perceived as a threat to their strategic deterrent, Obama has been able to reset our relations with Russia. This has allowed us to obtain their cooperation on negotiating a new START treaty and allowing our supplies to cross their territory on the way to Afghanistan.

These moves and many others—including Obama’s traveling to 20 countries; promising to reinvigorate the climate change and nuclear nonproliferation processes; building a first-rate national security team; reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world in his Cairo speech; negotiating with the Iranians directly and without preconditions; and attempting to reinvigorate the Middle East peace process—have improved the United States’ standing in the world. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded, "Confidence in Barack Obama’s foreign policy judgments stands behind a resurgent U.S. image in many countries." This no doubt was what led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

But well begun is only half done—that is, getting off to a good start is not enough. Obama still has to come to grips with a number of problems. First and foremost is Afghanistan. No sooner had Obama doubled the number of troops than he described the conflict as a “war of necessity.” And even before all the new troops arrived, he was confronted by a request for 40,000 more troops from the military; a president in Afghanistan who had lost legitimacy as a result of a fraudulent election and continuing corruption; a division about what to do within his own foreign policy team; a lack of troops who have had sufficient time at home to be sent back into battle; and declining support for the war among the American people and his own party.

Second, Iran appears to be reneging on the deal they agreed to on October 1, 2009, in negotiations with the P5 + 1, to transfer most of their low enriched uranium to Russia. How long will Obama wait before taking action? A similar situation exists in North Korea, which continues to make progress toward developing nuclear weapons.

Third, after making it clear that he wanted Israel to put a total freeze on settlements, including East Jerusalem, members of his administration have begun to back off undermining the Palestinian leadership and antagonizing many Israelis.

Fourth, the START Treaty talks with Russia will not be completed by December 5, 2009, when the 1991 agreement expires. This will mean that Obama will have to get two-thirds of the Senate to ratify the treaty in an election year. And even if he does so, it will make it almost impossible to get it to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty in his first term, steps that are necessary if he is to reinvigorate the nonproliferation regime.

Finally, while he remains personally popular in the world, even some of our closest allies are raising some doubts about his policies and actions. These concerns fall into four categories.

First, some contend that Obama had focused too much on domestic as opposed to foreign policy. Critics holding this point of view point out all the efforts he has put into getting the stimulus and health care bills passed and say he had not given the same attention and effort to foreign policy challenges like climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What these critics fail to note is that the domestic and foreign policy issues are inescapably related. The United States cannot fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unless it gets its domestic house in order. If its GDP does not grow, or if it continues to spend increasingly large amounts of its GDP on health care, or if it continues to have to borrow funds from countries like China, its ability to play a leadership role in world affairs will continue to decline. Finally, even while focusing on domestic issues, the president had already visited 20 countries in his 10 months in office.

Second, others claim that Obama gives great speeches but does not follow these up with specific, concrete actions. In other words, he is all talk and no action. Even if this were true, which it is not, the speeches were and are important because the United States needed to change the tone and optics of its foreign policy. By giving his first TV interview to the Arab station Al Arabiya, and in his speeches in Ankara and Cairo, Obama reached out to the Arab and Muslim worlds to demonstrate to them that the United States was not at war with or engaged in a crusade against the Muslim world. Moreover, Obama followed up these words with actions. For example, he announced that Guantanamo would be closed, released the torture memos, ended the use of torture or enhanced interrogation techniques, and announced that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks would be brought to trial in a U.S. federal court and given all the rights of any American defendant.

Third, many, especially Europeans, claim that Obama is more concerned with Asia, particularly China, than its traditional allies in Europe and more focused on organizations like the G-20, rather than the European-dominated G-8. However, Obama is not ignoring Europe. He has given a speech in Prague, convened a conference on Afghanistan in The Hague, attended the NATO meeting which marked its 60th anniversary, passed General Stanley McChrystal’s recommendation on the Afghan situation to them before he made his decision, and will attend the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

Moreover, Obama recognizes correctly that global challenges, whether they result from nuclear proliferation, climate change, or the economic meltdown, cannot be solved without the active participation of China. Not only does China have the world’s largest population (one out of every six people), it has the world’s second largest economy, and is the world’s greatest emitter of greenhouse gases.

Fourth, Obama is criticized by some for trying to do too much too soon and by others for doing too little. The former argue that he overinterpreted his electoral mandate and the opportunities presented by the economic crises. The latter argue that he has allowed Congress to slow down his decisions on such issues as releasing the torture memos and closing Guantanamo.

The fact of the matter is that some problems, like Iraq, Afghanistan, START, or America’s standing in the world, cannot wait, while our system of checks and balances prevents him from doing others whether he wants to or not.

The real problem for Obama is not that he has not solved all the world’s problems in less than a year, but that his unprecedented rise to power has created unrealistic expectations that it would be impossible for any political leader to fulfill, especially so quickly. Judging him by the criteria that are normally applied to newly elected presidents in their first year, he has done remarkably well, particularly given the problems he has inherited.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.