The Obama foreign policy era officially began last week in Geneva. William Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, met face-to-face with Iranian counterparts, enacting the president's inaugural promise of engaging with strategic adversaries. Such diplomatic endeavors are only one part of a two-pronged strategy, however, as Washington also pursues military options to defend against an Iranian attack. Not long before diplomats met in Switzerland, Obama decided to abandon the Bush administration's plan to station a long-range missile defense system in Eastern Europe, instead planning to place sea and land-based missile interceptor sites closer to Iran, in the Balkans and Turkey.
But in focusing on what these actions say about Obama's still-emerging non-proliferation strategy, we risk missing their true significance. The decisions to sit across the table from Iran and to pull the plug the Bush version of European missile defense signal the end of the Bush-Obama foreign policy transition.
Pundits are fond of using the "first one hundred days" as the standard benchmark of presidential transitions. This practice dates back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came into office on March 4, 1933 and confronted the Great Depression head-on by immediately introducing a record-breaking amount of legislation to Congress. By June 16--one hundred days later--FDR had laid the groundwork for the New Deal.
For contemporary observers of the presidency, however, the one hundred days metric has little utility. In foreign policy in particular, the transition is a three-step process.
First, the new administration must learn about the substance and history of the policies in place on January 20. Though some familiarization occurs during the pre-inaugural transition, a president-elect's under-strengthened foreign policy team does not have full access to the intelligence underlying past foreign policy decisions until Inauguration Day.
The Kennedy administration and the Bay of Pigs invasion is the classic example of this process. Prior to Kennedy's inauguration, only JFK and his vice president, Lyndon Johnson, knew that the CIA was planning a covert operation to overthrow Fidel Castro's Cuban regime. It was not until January 22, 1961 that key players such as Kennedy's Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and National Security Advisor learned of a major foreign policy that had already been set in motion.
In the Obama case, it is too soon to tell what his advisers knew and when they knew it. We can be sure, however, that Obama's foreign policy team only gained unhindered access to intelligence about Iraq, AfPak, and covert operations once they took charge in January.
Second, the incoming administration must assimilate the new information, and use it to further develop a strategic vision that is only sketched out on the campaign trail.
Take, for example, the Reagan administration's "rollback" strategy. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency, he inherited the Carter administration's program providing secret aid to mujahedeen fighting Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Examining the success of the Afghanistan effort, once in office, Reagan decided to step up the operation, providing even more aid to the anti-communist fighters. Before long, covert assistance to global anti-communist resistance movements became a centerpiece of the Reagan Doctrine.
True, we are still waiting for Obama's National Security Strategy and Quadrennial Defense Review. But anyone who has been paying attention could describe the guiding tenets of the Obama foreign policy.
Finally, the transition ends when the new administration decides which of its predecessor's policies--not values--to keep and which to dismantle. Changes of tone and rhetoric are easily accomplished, but wholesale changes of policy are much more complicated.
This September, on the eve of President Obama's historic chairmanship of the UN Security Council, the transition ended with two major policy shifts. First, on missile defense. After learning the details of the Eastern European program and conducting an extensive review--50 internal meetings and nearly 100 meetings with allies, according to the Washington Post--the president decided that the policy did not align with the strategic objectives of his administration.
Second, following through on talks with Iran. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was a major concern of the Bush administration, one shared by the Obama administration. But Obama has taken the opposite approach in addressing the Iranian issue: whereas Bush insisted that his government would not negotiate with its enemies, Obama has welcomed engagement. The Obama administration completed the policy turnabout on October 1, when direct talks began.
After 250-plus days in office, President Obama is prepared to confront the foreign policy challenges of his presidency. On the campaign trail and during the transition, Obama promised a great deal to the American people, and to the world. Now that the transition is over, the international community will find out whether President Obama can deliver on his commitment to bring a fresh, effective approach to American foreign policy.