Bloggers Debate Obama’s G.P.A. (And Before That Big Midterm Exam, Too)

Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy:

If I were a Republican Party leader, and I didn’t care a whit about the welfare of the United States (and no, those two descriptors are not synonymous), I’d be feeling pretty good right now. My party will almost certainly pick up a lot of seats in Congress come November, which is the normal mid-term pattern after a big swing the other way, and this shift will make it even easier for the GOP to obstruct future Obama initiatives. More importantly, I’d be increasingly confident about regaining the White House in 2012 too.


Unfortunately for Obama, things don’t look much brighter when you turn to foreign policy.  On the plus side, there’s a new arms control treaty with Russia (which he may not be able to get ratified), and surveys suggest that America’s global image has improved dramatically in many parts of the world. They smoothed over some disputes with Japan and are doing a good job of cultivating Indonesia, which is smart policy at a moment when China is becoming more assertive. But how many votes do you think that these modest successes will bring Obama in 2012? I’d say virtually none. And an improved global image isn’t much of an accomplishment, when you consider how bad things were when Obama was elected.

More importantly, Obama is likely to be O for 4 on the big ticket items that have defined his foreign policy agenda, and he will therefore be heading into 2012 without a major domestic or foreign policy achievement to run on. All that spells trouble for Democrats come 2012.

Just look at the list.

1. Iraq.
Obama didn’t get us into Iraq, and he’s doing the right thing to get us out more-or-less on the schedule that the Bush adminstration negotiated back in 2008. But it’s now clear that the much-vaunted “surge” was a strategic failure, and Iraq could easily spin back out of control once U.S. forces are gone. Even in the best case, Iraq can only be judged a defeat for the United States: we will have spent trillions of dollars and lost thousands of lives in order to bring to power an unstable government that is sympathetic to Iran and unlikely to be particularly friendly to the United States. Americans don’t like losing, however, and Obama is going to get blamed for this outcome even though it was entirely his predecessor’s fault.

2. Iran.
Obama made some good symbolic gestures at the beginning of his presidency, but he gradually reverted to the same fruitless approach that epitomized the Bush administration.  In essence, the U.S. position on Iran remains: “first you give us everything we want — namely, a complete end to nuclear enrichment — and then we’ll be happy to talk about some of the things that you want.”   This approach is not going to work, and that will lead war hawks — including some inside the administration — to claim that the only option remaining is military force.

One could argue that Obama got some bad breaks here — i.e., the contested 2009 election and subsequent turmoil in Iran undoubtedly made it much harder to do business with Tehran — but the key point is that meaningful progress on this issue is unlikely given the administration’s current approach. In the best case, we get stalemate; in the worst case, we get another war.   Some smart people still think the latter outcome is unlikely and I certainly hope they are right, but there are influential voices inside and outside the administration who will continue to push for a more forceful response. If you don’t believe me, read Time‘s Tony Karon here.  In any case, there’s little chance that Obama will be able to put Iran in the “win” column by 2012.

3. Israel-Palestine.
Obama took office promising “two-states for two peoples” in his first term, and he appeared to be serious about it until the Cairo speech in June 2009. It’s been one retreat after another ever since, and as former U.S. Ambassador Martin Indyk acknowledged in a recent Ha’aretz interview, it was mostly due to pressure from the Israel lobby. In his words (not mine):

American Jews traditionally are pretty supportive of the Democratic Party. They voted overwhelmingly for Barak Obama, they tend to vote for Democratic candidates and they provide a good deal of funding for political campaigns. So the Jewish factor is always a critical factor for Democratic candidates. I don’t think it’s telling any secrets that there are a lot of people who have been upset with President Obama. And I think that the White House came to the understanding that they have a real problem there and they are going out of their way trying to show they are friendly to Israel and committed to peace.”

The focus now seems to be solely on getting some sort of direct talks started, but even if George Mitchell conjures up a rabbit from his hat, those talks aren’t going to lead anywhere.   Settlements will continue to expand, the U.S. won’t do anything to stop them, and more and more people will come to realize that “two states” is becoming impossible. As I’ve said repeatedly, this situation is bad for the United States, bad for Israel and of course bad for the Palestinians. But it is also bad for Obama, because it means there’s yet another major issue where he will not be able to point to any progress.

4. Afghanistan.
I agree with those commentators who say that the recent Wikileaks expose didn’t add a lot of new information about the Afghan campaign. Instead, it confirmed what we already knew from multiple sources: the war is going badly, our Pakistani “partner” is double-dealing, and Obama made a major mistake when he decided to escalate in 2009. How many of you are confident that we are going to turn things around? Now he’s stuck, which means he will be presiding over not one but two losing wars. He didn’t start either of them, but that won’t matter to the American electorate, and certainly not to the GOP, FoxNews, and the rest of the right-wing attack machine.

Add to that list the signs of a deteriorating relationship with China (an issue that has significant long-term implications), the lack of progress on climate change (another Obama priority that hasn’t paid off yet), and you have a presidency that will limp into 2012 without a lot of tangible foreign policy achievements to its credit. That wouldn’t be a problem if the economy were humming along, but as noted above, that isn’t likely to be the case.

To be sure, none of these problems are easy to solve, and the lack of progress (or in some cases, backsliding) in part reflects the very tough hand that Obama was dealt from the outset.  But that excuse only goes so far. Obama’s fundamental error was to run try to run a very conventional foreign policy — one that turned out to be not very different from the second Bush term — in a situation that called for far more creative thinking and a willingness to try new approaches and stick with them even if it alienated some domestic constituencies.   Instead, he’s got the usual suspects running Middle East policy and achieving the same results they did in the past.  He’s “staying the course” in Afghanistan, even though plenty of smart people told him this was a losing strategy from the beginning. He’s adopted the same unimaginative and failed policy towards Tehran, and then seems surprised that Iran doesn’t leap to do our bidding.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

My esteemed colleague Steve Walt writes today that Obama is in trouble for 2012 in part because he’s “0 for 4 on the big ticket items that have defined his foreign policy agenda.”   I’ve got to disagree.  There may be no full-scale successes yet — as if anybody thought Obama could solve the world’s problems in a year and half — but he’s actually doing far better than Walt suggests.   Specifically, I’d largely agree with Walt on Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine, but both Iraq and Iran are more likely to be winners than losers.   Beyond that, though, Obama will gain in stature by comparison with the lunacy currently dominating the Republican political establishment — which will likely only escalate as the political season develops and every GOP wannabe tries to outbid on the crazy.

Here’s my revised scorecard, following Walt’s list:

1. Iraq.   Obama is on track to deliver on his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq — something which voters might begin to notice next month when they discover that he has also met his promise to get down to 50,000 troops.  He’s already almost there, without anyone really paying attention, and he has admirably resisted all pressure and temptation to relax the timeline in the face of the political paralysis of Iraq’s political class.  What’s more, Iraqi security forces and state institutions have proven quite robust during the extended political crisis, and the general security trends are not nearly as dire as the headlines would suggest.   Iraq should be a major positive for 2012 if Obama makes the case, as I’m sure he will:  he kept his promise on his signature policy initiative and it has worked out pretty well.

And the GOP alternative is…. staying longer?  I don’t see that as a political winner.

2.  Iran.   While I would have liked to see more robust engagement back at the start of the administration, and less of a rush to the pressure track, the fact is that Iran today is far weaker and more isolated than it was when Obama took office.  He successfully built multilateral support for sanctions, and by all accounts the sanctions (including the additional unilateral ones) are starting to have a real effect.  He seems to have effectively convinced the Israelis to not jump the gun.   There’s a long way to go until 2012, but Iran should look like a policy winner by then.  Pretty much the only two outcomes which could turn Iran into a disaster are either a successful nuclear test or a rash military strike by Israel or the U.S.  I don’t think either is likely.   There’s a chance for a major positive development, such as Ahmedenejad being driven from power and/or a major uranium exchange deal, but even the status quo of a weaker, isolated Iran will look pretty good.

And the GOP alternative is… war?  I don’t see that as a political winner.

3.  Israel-Palestine.  OK, I’ll go with Walt on this one.  I don’t see this really going anywhere, direct talks or no direct talks.   I’m glad that the Gaza blockade has been somewhat eased, but that’s probably not enough for a passing grade.  The real question here, to which I don’t have an answer, is how salient this issue will be come 2012.

4.   Afghanistan.   I’m also not feeling very good about this one.  But the one ray of hope I see is that David Petraeus will try to do in Afghanistan what he really did in Iraq, not what popular mythology says he did in Iraq:  cut deals with local forces and find a way to stabilize the situation just enough to be able to draw down and leave a reasonably stable state behind even if few of the deeper long-term political or institutional problems are solved.   I’m not optimistic, though, and agree that I don’t see any way this is a political winner in 2012.

But again, the Republican alternative is… what?  More troops for longer?  Or is it taking off the gloves and killing more people? Or is it time to get out of Obama’s failed war?  I lose track.

So my scoring is 2-4 on what Walt calls the signature issues — and batting .500 gets you into the Hall of Fame.    But there’s more — the nuclear non-proliferation stuff is kind of a big deal, for example, and if START goes through could be a major accomplishment I have my doubts about the Republicans allowing anything at all  to go through the Senate if they can stop it, but that would only fuel the argument about GOP irresponsibility). I would balance that out with my dismay over the failure to close Guantanamo and other civil liberties issues, but in the end all those issues together are probably a wash.  Let’s say that overall he’s batting a bit over .300, with disappointing power numbers  — not Hall of Fame, but pretty darned solid.

Walt responds:

Here’s a brief rejoinder.

On Iraq:
Marc is correct to point out that Obama has delivered on his campaign promise to get out of Iraq, and Obama is going to make a speech tonight designed to highlight that “achievement.” The problem is that Iraq will continue to be a headache for the United States for some time to come, and things could easily spiral back into the sort of internecine violence that was occurring in 2006. The administration and the Pentagon are “accentuating the positive” these days, but as the New York Times pointed out just this morning, there are significant disagreements about the actual level of violence and little doubt that things are heating up as we draw down. A front-page story also highlighted how corruption, inefficiency, and political stalemates are crippling Iraq’s electrical power system, even after the United States poured billions into trying to rebuild and repair it.

None of this is Obama’s fault. But remember that the end of the “combat mission” doesn’t mean an end to a significant U.S. presence there, and he’ll face continued pressure to “do something” if the situation deteriorates. And if Iraq does go south, you can be sure that the GOP and unrepentant neo-cons will blame it on those feckless Democrats. They’ll talk for hours about how the “surge worked” (which isn’t true), and suggest that everything would have been hunky-dory if McCain and Palin were in charge.

That’s palpable nonsense, of course, but my main point still stands: Iraq won’t be looking like a success story and Obama won’t get any political credit for it. If anything, the right will attack him for letting Iraq spiral back into violence and the left will be disappointed that we still have training missions, air assets, and private contractors there. Bottom line: Iraq will be a hard issue to run on 2012, and Obama’s main hope is that people won’t be talking about it much.  I’ll be he’s got his fingers crossed on that one.

On Iran:
Marc is also correct to credit the Obama administration with winning greater international support for its approach to Iran, and with successfully isolating Tehran from some past backers (e.g., Russia). And I certainly agree with him that the main GOP alternative — a U.S. or Israeli airstrike — would be folly. The problem, however, is that the current approach isn’t weakening the clerical regime, isn’t halting its nuclear enrichment program, and certainly isn’t preparing the way for some sort of détente or rapprochement. Indeed, isolating Iran and tightening the sanctions could easily strengthen the hands of those Iranians who are pushing to acquire a nuclear weapon, as opposed to those who reject this course or want to go near but not cross the nuclear weapons threshold.

In political terms, therefore, Obama’s Iran policy will have failed to produce any tangible benefits by 2012. Iran will have more centrifuges running, and more nuclear material stockpiled. Relations with Tehran will be no better, and maybe worse, than they were in 2009. War will still be an unattractive option — and let’s not forget that much of the international support for tighter sanctions reflects other states’ desire to keep the military option off the table — but that won’t stop the GOP from accusing Obama of appeasement, pusillanimity, naiveté, lack of will, etc. Marc is right that their alternative is worse, but assuming we don’t actually adopt it, they will be able to pretend that the Iran problem would have been solved by now if we’d just gone ahead and bombed.

As with a lot of my other analysis, I’d dearly love to be wrong about all of this. I would like to see the Afghan campaign succeed and it would be wonderful if Iraq settled down and prospered. I’d be thrilled if George Mitchell proved me wrong and actually delivered a viable two-state solution, and we could all rejoice if Iran and the international community reached a deal that kept Tehran from building nuclear weapons in perpetuity and opened the door to better relations. I like pleasant surprises as much as the next person, but I’ve learned not to expect them, especially when most of the signs point the other way.

Daniel Drezner:

As a global political economy person with a strong realpoliitik streak, here are the four issues I think should be given the largest weighting in any grading of Obama:

1)  Great power politics:  This is where Obama deserves his best marks, despite some occasional rocky patches.  It’s safe to say that relations with Russia have been on the mend for quite some time.  Wright is correct to point out the ups and downs with China, but the administration has reacted quite adroitly to China’s renewed confidence on the regional and global stage.  U.S. relations with key Pacific Rim allies — South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, India, and even Vietnam if you want to go that far — have all been trending upwards.  China now has to process these events, and whether its desire to throw its weigtht around is worth the price of a balancing strategy.  This wasn’t how Obama planned things to go with China, but given Beijing’s behavior, I think they improvised and adapted quite well in this sphere.  GRADE:  A-

2)  Correcting imbalances in the global economy:  The last G-20 summit in Toronto demonstrated how poorly the Obama administration has done on this front.  The administration went into that summit arguing that some countries need to continue priming the fiscal pump.  The resulting communique did not reflect that assessment.  Deficit hawks have won the war of ideas here — which would be fine if surplus countries like Germany and China balanced that approach by consuming more.  They ain’t going in that direction, however.  There’s been minimal progress on yuan revaluation, and real foot-dragging in the Eurozone about fixing what ails that region.  Given the high hopes Obama administration put on the G-20, this has been a thoroughly disapponting performance to date:  GRADE:  D

3)  Trade:  Blech.  Let me repeat that — blech.  I understand that the administration is on barren political terrain when dealing with this issue.  Still, the phrase “Obama administration’s trade agenda” is pretty much a contradiction in terms at this point.  The Doha round is dead, and the only trade issue that has the support of policy principals is the National Export Initiative — and you know what I think about that.  Unlike the other three issues, the administration hasn’t even bothered to put much effort onto this one — though the recent pledge to get the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) ratified is promising.  GRADE:  F

4)  Nuclear nonproliferation:  Even an IPE guy like myself appreciates the virtues of a world in which nuclear weapons are heavily regulated.  The Obama administration’s performance in this area has been mixed.  START has been negotiated but not ratified, and the Nuclear Safety Summit seems like it was a success.  Iran and North Korea seem unbowed, but at the same time the Obama administration has reinforced the multilateral arrangements designed to contain both countries (though this is interesting).  At the same time, you can’t just grade for effort at this level, and the results have been disappointing with both countries.  There is also something of a strategic mismatch between the Obama administration’s nuclwar ambitions and grand strategy ambitions.  GRADE:  B-

All grades are incomplete at this stage, but looking above, I’m more than a bit troubled.  I don’t see the rebalancing or trade grades impriving anytime soon.  If Obamas was one of my advisees, I’d probably have him stop by my office hours for a friendly but firm chat at this juncture.

Kevin Drum on Drezner:

I don’t expect to make much headway with Dan on this subject, but I think he’s all wet here for two reasons. The first is that “barren political terrain” he acknowledges. No president can reasonably be expected to put a ton of political muscle behind a lost cause, and major progress on, say, the Doha round, was pretty clearly a lost cause from the day Obama entered office. In the face of a catastrophic global recession, there was never even the slightest chance of gaining support either at home or abroad for any major trade initiatives, and it’s simply not reasonable to expect Obama to put any energy behind it. Not only would it have gone nowhere, it might even have been counterproductive. Better to wait until the global climate provides at least a bit of a tailwind.

Second, this isn’t a classroom, where you get an F for not showing up. In politics, you get an F for being counterproductive. Obama hasn’t been. He’s simply ignored trade as an issue. But he hasn’t done any harm, and under the circumstances that’s quite possibly about as much as a trade enthusiast could have hoped for.

I think Dan will be on firmer ground in a few years. When the economy picks up and trade issues get pushed back into the foreground, what will Obama do? We won’t know until it happens, and in the meantime his (lack of) performance should earn him an Incomplete, not an F.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

The global economy has lived to fight another day, and that’s something to appreciate. As Mr Drum says, if as little progress is made over the next two years as over the last two, then there will be more cause for concern.

Drezner responds:

These are interesting points, but I fear that Drum and Avent are far too easy in their grading.  Rewarding Obama for not making things worse on the trade front is like rewarding him for not invading Pakistan — kudos for not pursuing a spectacularly bad idea, but really, is that a positive accomplishment?  I think not.  Or to use another grading analogy — students can receive an F even if they don’t plagiarize.

As for Obama resisting the tides of protectionism, I’ll credit the separation of powers a bit more than Drum or Avent.  The U.S. political system is arranged to make it very difficult for anyone to change the status quo.  Even if Barack Obama wanted to pull the United States out of the World Trade Organization, for example, he likely couldn’t have gotten the necessary votes in Congress.   The Obama administration has mildly resisted more hawkish member of Congress to “get tough” with China.  That’s about it in terms of preventing protectionism.  When I said Obama had done almost nothing on trade, I wasn’t kidding.

If I have a student who barely puts in any work and nevertheless writes great papers, they’ll receive a good grade.  The outcome matters more as one matriculates.  A student who barely puts in any work and has nothing to show for it?  F city.


1 Comment

Filed under Political Figures

One response to “Bloggers Debate Obama’s G.P.A. (And Before That Big Midterm Exam, Too)

  1. Raj


    Dont you think it is unfair to blame Obama for the outcome of losing to Iraq, even though it was entirely his predecessor’s fault.

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