As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The First 101 Days

I didn't get to write about my GRADES for the President in his first 100 days, so I moved the goalposts!

Actually, I don't want to give grades. That CNN show with the snap judgments (vote on the Senate, 5 minutes, GO!) depressed me as much as anything in American politics. Sometimes I feel like the President tries to have a serious conversation in the way that a headmaster tries to have a serious conversation with pre-schoolers. But I do want to make an early assessment of Obama's foreign policy. Interestingly, the subject came up a lot in last night's presser, more than I expected.

Most important, Obama has restored a measure of respect for the United States around the world, by rejecting the cowboy diplomacy of the past and asserting that America is part of a community of nations. He wants a fresh start, untainted by the arguments of the past. While I believe he sits in the realist school of foreign policy, he recognizes the importance of tough but fair negotiation with allies and adversaries alike. It only looks novel because it's disappeared from the scene over the last decade.

Second, while the United States best represents itself by living up to its universal values and ideas, the President said the United States must also respect the variety of cultures and perspectives that guide both American foes and friends.

"I firmly believe that if we're willing to break free from the arguments and ideologies of an earlier era and continue to act, as we have at this summit, with a sense of mutual responsibility and mutual respect and mutual interest, then each of our nations can come out of this challenging period stronger and more prosperous, and we can advance opportunity, equality, and security across the Americas," the President said.

The Obama Doctrine, it is what the world wants. And I'll note that senior adviser David Axelrod describes the President's tactics this way, "You plant, you cultivate, you harvest. Over time, the seeds that were planted here are going to be very, very valuable."

I find that remarkable for just yesterday Argentina's La NaciĆ³n opined that the Summit was "the seed of a new relationship" between Latin America and the United States. After years of bitter fruit, the harvest for succeeding generations promises to be very sweet indeed.

This worldview is very refreshing. But has it been met with results? Well, we're starting to see a thaw of relations in Cuba, and low-level conversations on a more comprehensive solution. The Latin American Cold War has ended, with new initiatives like microfinance grants supplanting the neoliberal demands and hemispheric meddling. Obama has clearly cheered relations with allies in Europe, and even made strides toward agreements on arms limitation with Russia. In the Middle East, Juan Cole has a great roundup, and I will quote it at length.

Obama did an interview with al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based Arabic satellite news station, soon after he got into office. He offered a hand of friendship to Muslims, insisted that you can't stereotype 1.5 billion people with the actions of a few terrorists, and implied that al-Qaeda seemed to be running scared that it had lost George W. Bush as a recruiting tool.

Obama's public diplomacy extended to Iran, which he addressed on the occasion of the Persian New Year. He stressed the opportunity for Iran to re-enter the world community through diplomacy with the US.

Although the US press interpreted the Iranian response as a rebuff, I argued that the leadership in Tehran greeted it with caution and adopted a wait and see attitude.

The big moment for public diplomacy, however, was Obama's trip to Turkey. In 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, 56 percent of Turks had a favorable or very favorable view of the United States. By late in the Bush administration eight years later, that percentage stood at 9%. Bush was barely more popular in Turkey than was Bin Laden. But nearly 40 percent of Turks say that they have confidence in President Obama, making him the politician in Turkey with the very highest approval rating! [...]

On Iraq, Obama visited Baghdad and met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. He outlined the specifics of the US withdrawal plan, which envisages US combat troops ceasing active patrols in Iraqi cities by August 1, 2009; a withdrawal of all combat troops by September 1, 2010, and the withdrawal of the remaining 40,000 or so logistical support and other US troops by Dec. 31, 2011. While US commander Gen. Ray Odierno clearly chafed at this timeline and wants to tweak it, even he recently said he was 10 out of 10 sure that it would be adhered to under current condition [...]

Obama has been dealt a difficult hand in the hot spots. It is highly unlikely that he can accomplish much on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, given the far rightwing racist character of the Netanyahu-Lieberman government (it would be as though Jean-Marie Le Pen had come to power in France). The Palestinians themselves have been successfully divided by Israel and the US, and by their own leaders' factiousness (Hamas in Gaza is in its own way like a Jean-Maire Le Pen scenario on the Palestinian side) [...]

Obama seems to think that Afghanistan can be resolved through sending more troops, which is highly unlikely to be the case. And despite his hard line on Pakistan, he has been unable to convince Islamabad to take the Pakistani Taliban seriously as a threat to the whole of Pakistan. (Pakistanis tend to see them as particularly strict Muslim Pushtuns, not a new phenomenon and not relevant to most Punjabis and Sindhis; and they tend to want the disputes settled through parleys instead of massive military operations.)

So, an "A" on style, which is all that could probably be accomplished in 100 days. We need to come back and judge substance a year from now. But the challenges are enormous, especially at a time when domestic economic and health concerns are the primary focus of the American public.

Even in the Af-Pak region, circumstances are changing. Pakistan appears to be taking the Taliban situation seriously of late, attacking them in Buner, and Afghan rebels have agreed to stop fighting in exchange for amnesty and a job.

I don't really agree with the Administration's policy in Afghanistan. But it's up to our progressive leaders to fight for a real exit strategy and a focus on diplomatic instead of military solutions. They also ought to remind Obama that the problem exists in Pakistan (he called the government "fragile" in his press conference yesterday), and more must be done there. I also like public efforts to highlight the situation in Darfur and the explusion of aid groups from Sudan.

My first 101 days grade of the President on foreign policy is solid, but the future is when the substance must match the style.

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