Obama's First Year: Foreign Affairs

04/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Constitution specifies a large number of duties for the President, from commander-in-chief of the armed forces to chief executive of the federal bureaucracy. Presidents lead both the domestic and foreign affairs of the nation. But every President since Washington carried out another duty, not in the Constitution: leader of his political party. History judges Presidencies on three dimensions: foreign leadership, domestic leadership, and party leadership.

This post looks at Obama's first year from the foreign policy dimension. Future posts will address domestic affairs and party politics.

In the campaign, Obama stressed three points of departure from the Bush Administration: wind down military involvement in Iraq, change the tone of US foreign relations, and focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. His first year saw success in all three areas.

Obama achieved the first point before his inauguration in the status of forces agreement the Bush administration negotiated with the Iraqi government, essentially on the terms Obama advocated. To the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War, the irony of "declare victory and withdraw" is palpable.

Sun-Tzu wrote in the Art of War that the most excellent general wins without even fighting the battle. He went on to say that the general often does not get enough credit, because it is easier to count the dead and wounded than to appreciate the strategic significance of the bloodless triumph. Obama achieved just such a victory, before taking office.

The common wisdom is that new Presidents spend little time on foreign affairs in their first year in office. Policy largely continues from the prior administration, and new foreign policy initiatives typically wait until later in the term, when the domestic agenda is played out.

But history since World War II tells a different story. Truman dealt with the creation of the United Nations and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a nuclear power in his first year. Eisenhower oversaw the Korean War armistice. Kennedy dealt with the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and then with the missile crisis. Johnson reversed the growing consensus within the Kennedy administration to withdraw from Vietnam and instead began to escalate. Nixon further escalated the Vietnam War. Ford, Carter, GHW Bush and Clinton could be examples of the conventional wisdom, dealing with foreign policy issues only later in their terms. Reagan called for more focus in the Cold War. GW Bush faced 9/11. Score: conventional wisdom 4, history 8.

So Obama's year of outreach to change the perception of the United States fits history, despite the conventional wisdom. Was it successful? In a way, we in the United States are not really in a position to judge.

The decision of the Nobel Prize committee provides a strong clue. Nobel Prizes in science recognize seminal work long after it has proven its value. By contrast, the Peace Prize hews to Nobel's original intention to honor the best work of the current year. Often the Peace Prize recognizes work still in progress, work that may never come to fruition, but should be encouraged.

Obama has not, as yet, brokered a peace accord, like Teddy Roosevelt or Jimmy Carter. Nor has he helped create a new international institution, like Woodrow Wilson. But he has, in the judgment of international polls and the Nobel Prize committee, succeeded in changing the tenor of international relations enough to be deemed the greatest contributor to the cause of world peace last year.

Finally, Obama tackled the thorny issue of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama is the third President to try Afghanistan, and it remains to be seen if his policy will fare better, since the prior two attempts managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Charlie Wilson's War documents the first try in Afghanistan under Reagan. Starting as a trickle of aid to the mujahadeen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the operation became the largest covert war in history, costing $1 billion a year back when that was real money. The military phase of that war succeeded brilliantly: the Red Army retreated in defeat and the Soviet Union itself began to unravel. The United States and its allies won the Cold War the costliest and one of the longest wars in history. But in the aftermath, Afghanistan was ignored. Twelve years later, under Taliban rule, Afghanistan became the training ground for Al Queda and the launch pad for the 9/11 attacks.

GW Bush initiated the second Afghanistan War. In the wake of 9/11, international support rallied around the United States. At first, it seemed to go well: a small, elite US force was enough to change the balance of power enough to drive the Taliban back across the border to Pakistan. Then our attention shifted to Iraq. That's another story, too big for just this one blog post! But the upshot is that once again the chaotic local situation in Afghanistan undid whatever US military action and support accomplished.

So Obama inherited an ugly situation. There is no military victory to be had: no army to defeat, nor territory to hold. Success can only be measured by enough stability to be able to withdraw combat troops, but leave a very long term (20 year?) civilian effort to build the schools, roads, and institutions. It would have been so much cheaper if we had started in the late 1980s instead of 2010.

The Afghanistan policy review was fraught with domestic political peril for Obama. Nevertheless, his West Point speech may have been the high point of the first year. For the Right, Obama had an immediate troop increase. For the Left, he had a date certain to begin to draw down. Both sides seemed to miss the nuance that the rate and end-date of the draw-down were left "as an exercise for the student." For the Center, Obama has an "adult to adult" talk that did not flinch from the costs, complexities, and necessities of the situation. He turned what could have been a disaster that could cripple his presidency into at least a neutral, perhaps even a slight positive.

So Obama had a very good first year on the foreign front. Unfortunately, he did not do so well on the domestic and party fronts. Stay tuned for more on that.