Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

What To Expect In The Next Year

Posted in U.S. Foreign and Defense Policy by Dan on November 5, 2009


Over the past week, every IR scholar on this side of the horizon has been commenting on President Obama’s first-year in office.  For those who are unaware of the special anniversary, the so-called “candidate of hope” passed his first-test as Commander-in-Chief a couple of days ago; surviving the Washington “broo ha-ha” and the intense atmosphere of partisanship that has come to dominate the nation’s capitol.  And, taking some of this past year’s propositions into account, it appears that President Obama has passed challenge #1 with flying colors.  In fact, not only is he retaining the country’s (indeed, the world’s) popular support with an iron fist…he is doing so with a weak and fractured Republican Party bent on discrediting his administration at every turn.

Of course, the first test for a President is not necessarily a difficult one.  Even the most unpopular President in contemporary American history- George W. Bush- managed to survive his first year in the Oval Office with a 90 percent approval rating.  It is what comes next that is the hard part; actually implementing campaign promises and working for re-election at the same exact time.

From Iran to North Korea, from nuclear proliferation to the War in Iraq, and from the Afghan conflict to the dismal situation in Latin America, the second-year in power will undoubtedly be a crucial time for the Obama administration’s legacy…heck, even its survival.

For the Democrats who have been riding on the President’s coattails for the last 12 months, the rest of Obama’s first-term will be an opportunity to expand health-care coverage, withdraw troops from distant deserts, and strengthen America’s image to the world through unconditional diplomacy and “mutual respect.”  We may even see more U.S.-brokered talks with some of the world’s most brutal and authoritarian regimes.

For Republicans who have been gnashing their teeth and clamoring up the walls, Mr. Obama’s second-year will result in an enhanced effort by conservatives to re-take the U.S. Congress in the midterm elections.  Expect the Republican Party to remain defiant in the face of a Democratic administration, advocating the Bush tax-cuts, pushing for tougher penalties against Iran, and redoubling the U.S military effort in a war that has been fading away from the American conscience.

What does this mean for the ordinary American citizen who ventures to the polls every four-years?  Well, it is rather simple in my perspective; more tip-toeing over important foreign-policy issues that need to be confronted with the government’s full resources and the administration’s full concentration.

The nuclear stalemate between the Islamic Republic and the western community will continue to gain traction within the halls of Congress, absent Obama’s efforts at dialogue and despite the recent U.N.-approved nuclear enrichment deal.  Israel may even take matters into their own-hands.

Israel will continue to build settlement outposts in the occupied West Bank…the same land that the Palestinians view as crucial for a future state of their own.  As in the past, President Obama will cave-in to Israeli demands over settlement construction, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will inevitably be forced to accept a White House policy of “wait and see.”  Meanwhile, expect dramatic changes in the Palestinian leadership, with Hamas radicals in the Gaza Strip discrediting PA President Mahmoud Abbas.  It may not be illogical to expect a changing of the guard for Fatah, a movement that has been losing support among moderate Palestinians.  To summarize, the same Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Mr. Obama labeled as the most eminent obstacle to American power in the Middle East will be avoided by yet another American presidency.

Iraq is perhaps the one silver-lining in this whole list.  Thus far, the President has made it clear that he is willing to stick by his original plan, withdrawing the majority of American troops from Iraq by January of 2012.  Yet, even this policy is up in the air, with Iraqi violence once again returning and the Iraqi Parliament failing to resolve some key issues, thereby pitting sectarian groups against one another (oil revenue, the city of Kirkuk, the Kurdish question, etc.).

Hopefully, I am wrong with all of these predictions.  Perhaps I am just a pessimist, taking by skepticism about Obama to new heights.

However, this does not appear to be the case.  Some scholars- mostly hawkish in origin- tend to agree with this same premise.  President Obama could very well become the first sitting American President with a Nobel-Prize that is considered a sitting-duck ahead of the next November election.

-Daniel R. DePetris


9 Responses

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  1. David J. Kramer (The German Marshall Fund) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I have been surprised — and disappointed — by the extent to which the administration has been willing to extend a hand to rogue regimes and enemy states at the same time it seems to keep many of its friends at a distance.

    The president’s speeches in places like Moscow, Accra, and Cairo have, for the most part, hit the right tone and messages. His visit to Moscow in July was well done (though his policy toward Russia since then has raised some serious questions).

    The president personally needs to make a strong and relentless push to address the challenge posed by Iran and tell Moscow that this issue more than any other will define whether the reset efforts with Russia succeed or fail. That Secretary Clinton did not push the Russians on sanctions during her recent visit was inexplicable. Hopefully, Gen. Jones last week raised this. One senior U.S. official recently admitted that the administration didn’t know what it wanted/needed to do next. With an end-of-December deadline not far away and Iran up to its usual tricks, the administration better figure out a strategy fast before Israel takes matters into its own hands.

    Iran, more than Afghanistan and Iraq, may well be the dominant foreign policy issue next year.

  2. Phil Levy (The American Enterprise Institute) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    I have been most surprised by President Obama’s policy toward China. Trade with China was a major concern of labor groups in the election and then-Senator Obama signed pledges about the aggressive approach he would take. This included a commitment to find that China was a currency manipulator — a stance reiterated by Treasury Secretary Geithner in his confirmation testimony. If anything, the facts shifted in favor of a currency finding against China: the exchange rate has not moved in over a year and the United States is borrowing less from abroad (suggesting less dependence).

    However, in April and October, the Obama Treasury repeated the finding of the Bush Treasury, that there were no currency manipulators worth mentioning. If you combine this with the docile stance on human rights that my Shadow Government colleagues have already mentioned, it might be explained as a surprising but consistent attempt to engage China as an important economic player. Yet the administration also chose to confront the Chinese with a weak decision on low-cost tires.

    For constructive criticism, I would turn to the administration’s broader trade policy. President Obama has attempted to warm international relations while chilling commercial relations. In China, Colombia, S. Korea, Brazil, India, and the European Union, there is growing aggravation at the administration’s lack of a trade policy. It is high time that the president deliver his long-promised speech and resolve the conflicts within his party on trade. That could clear the way for reengagement with the rest of the world.

    Finally, as a prediction for one year hence, I forecast serious international rancor over the environment. President Obama is in a bind. If there is no U.S. action on climate change, there will be sharp condemnation and disillusionment from abroad. If there is action, it seems likely to entail border measures (tariffs) that could threaten the global trading system. It is hard to see how this ends well.

  3. Michael Singh (Washington Institute for Near East Policy) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:09 pm

    One lesson of the financial crisis is that short-termism has plagued U.S. business; too often it plagues U.S. politics and policy as well. The Obama administration has been both victim and perpetrator of this offense. On the one hand, the Obama administration (like most new administrations) has been the target of the short-term thinking prevalent in political and media circles, which judges progress in weeks and months, even against problems which have persisted for decades or longer. On the other hand, the administration itself has exacerbated this problem by raising expectations that many of America’s problems in the world could be solved with a simple shift in tactics, and to make matters worse often exaggerated its own tactical differences from its predecessors.

    This latter tendency seems to flow from one of this administration’s most curious characteristics — its fixation on the past. When you are in government, your critics typically want to focus on the past, picking apart your record to find failures or inconsistencies, while you would rather focus on your plans for the future. As citizens, this is precisely what we want of our officials — while as a society we may want — and need — to grapple with our past, we need policymakers to glean what lessons they can from it and look forward. After all, we are powerless to change the past, and duty-bound to shape the future. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems caught in the past, continuing one year after the 2008 election to define itself by its repudiation of predecessors’ policies rather than a clear articulation of its own vision for the future.

    In reviewing the Obama administration’s foreign policy record, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, one finds things to criticize as well as to commend. But more important than what they have done thus far is what they will do next. The administration has poorly handled the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is at a standstill if not moving backwards. Rather than simply pressing for a quick resumption of negotiations, the administration will need to think creatively about how to set the right regional and local context for talks and how to address the interests underlying the parties’ seemingly rigid and incompatible positions. On the Iran nuclear issue, while one can dispute various tactical decisions it has made, the administration is to be commended for its decision to shift from its early near-exclusive focus on engagement to a policy that mixes pressure and negotiations. But again the crucial question is prospective; while the Obama administration has convincingly asserted its commitment to diplomacy, it has been relatively reticent about what it might do if diplomacy fails to halt Iran’s nuclear march.

    Because the Obama administration has yet to confront these big questions — and has not moved to answer them preemptively, as would be useful in the Iran case — we have plenty of information about its tactics, but its strategies have yet to come into focus. In two areas where it has made a sharp strategic break from the previous administration, its policy is best characterized, ironically, not as one of engagement but of disengagement. These are the promotion of human rights and democracy, on which this administration has been virtually silent, and trade, where protectionism has resurfaced and the promotion of free trade has ebbed. The United States stands for liberty, and when we stray from our values we succumb to the sort of short-term thinking for which we are bound to pay a hefty long-term price.

  4. Daniel Blumenthal (Commisioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Commission) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    Overall, Obama’s Asia policy has been largely driven by events and domestic priorities rather than by an overarching strategic vision. The Obama team had to closely coordinate with China on financial matters in response to the financial crisis. Passing a cap and trade bill at home means that we need China to sign up to a global climate change pact; Americans will chafe at a costly bill if the world’s largest carbon emitters do not agree to carbon reductions.

    The Obama team attempted a new policy on Burma. The idea is to find a way to engage the military junta which would strengthen relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member. But the policy change has been overtaken by events.

    Aung San Suu Kyi was unfairly punished when an American swam across a lake to her residence. And the junta began a new round of repression, as its leaders jail and harass political opponents in the run up to their 2010 “elections.” Obama could not radically shift Burma policy. Rather, adjustments to our relations with ASEAN and Burma have been only marginal. There has been some more contact with the junta. And as part of the broader attempt to build stronger relations with Southeast Asia, the administration signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC). These and visits to Southeast Asia by Secretary Clinton and her deputy, Jim Steinberg, demonstrate a desire to deepen American engagement with that region. It is unlikely that engaging Burma or signing the TAC will increase America’s regional influence.

    There are several Obama Asia policies that have been surprising. On a positive note, the Obama team has given much greater attention to the Japan alliance than I had expected. Secretary Clinton’s first stop in Asia was in Tokyo, which eased Japanese concerns that they were in for another round of “Japan passing.” Since the Democratic Party of Japan took over last September, Obama officials have visited Japan frequently to get a sense of how to deal with a party that has never before governed. The Obama team should be commended for trying to find its way with this inexperienced and eclectic ruling coalition.

    Other policies should give us pause. For example, Obama is sticking to his campaign promises on trade, which means we have no trade policy. The Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement has been collecting dust in the Congress. The rest of the region, however, is not standing still. China seems to sign a trade agreement a minute and South Korea is moving forward on an FTA with the EU. If this continues, not only will our economy be disadvantaged, but our regional leadership will also suffer. While the Obama administration has done a fine job showing up to Asian multilateral meetings, without new trade proposals it has shown up empty handed.

    A second troubling policy is the absence of any agenda on Taiwan. The Obama team was effusive in its praise of President Ma when he was elected in March 2008 and they applaud his attempts to ease tensions with the Mainland. The Taiwan president is doing what he thinks Washington wants – easing cross Strait tensions. But there was an implicit bargain with Taiwan that we are not upholding. We were supposed to strengthen Ma’s hand by strengthening our ties to Taiwan. The Obama team is not helping Ma. We have not sold any arms to Taiwan even as China has continued its arms buildup across the Strait. And Obama has no plans of yet to deepen economic ties as Taiwan goes forward with a China FTA.

    Third, the bluntness with which the team has downplayed China’s miserable human rights record is an unfortunate break with past administrations’ practices. Secretary Clinton announced that she would deemphasize human rights concerns on her first trip to China. This was followed by the president’s refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama when the Tibetan spiritual leader was in Washington last month. The administration has also been silent on Uighur repression and will not meet with Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer. It does not help either country for us to pretend that we are indifferent about Chinese respect for human rights, when in reality we have a huge stake in China’s political liberalization.

    Overall, despite a regular barrage of criticism by Candidate Obama directed at President Bush for his supposed neglect of Asia (never a fair criticism), the Obama team has not wowed the region with new ideas or lavished it with attention. During Bush’s first year, his administration had offered the largest arms package ever to Taiwan, was well on its way to substantially upgrading ties with Japan, and was negotiating a diplomatic breakthrough with India of historical significance. Then-U.S. Trade Representative Bob Zoellick was negotiating free trade agreements with Singapore, Australia, and Korea.

    The criticism of the Bush administration was that it was “distracted” by the war on terror. The Obama team is learning that fighting a war saps a nation’s energy and attention. Now in office, the Obama team can see that the threat from Islamic extremism is very real. The Obama team may have really believed that they could “fix” Afghanistan, disengage from Iraq, and then move on to “re-engaging” the rest of the world.

    As Obama is learning, it is not so easy to “move on” when you are at war. No president can disconnect a major foreign policy issue such as war from other foreign policy issues. Asians have a stake in America’s Afghanistan policy. A loss in Afghanistan would have stark consequences, as friend and foe alike would question our resolve, and Islamic extremism would rear its head again in Southeast Asia.
    Obama’s Asia team must be finding that during wartime, presidential attention is the scarcest of commodities. Obama has no choice but to focus on “the wars we are in,” often at the expense of the Obama team’s hopes for a grand “re-engagement” with Asia.

  5. Tom Mahnken (Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    I’m surprised that the Obama administration hasn’t tackled the reform of U.S. national security institutions. Before assuming office, many of the administration’s top officials — to include Jim Jones and Dennis Blair — argued persuasively for the need to update the organization of the national security community to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. Since assuming office, the administration has been largely silent on the issue. There’s still time to act, but the momentum for change appears to be slipping away.

    Easy. The decision to keep Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a handful of his advisors onboard was a wise one.

    I predict that a year from now we’re likely to be involved in a crisis that the administration either hadn’t foreseen or for which it hadn’t adequately prepared. I can’t tell what that crisis will, be of course; merely that the unexpected is to be expected.

  6. Michael J. Green (Center for Strategic and International Studies/ Associate Professor of IR at Georgetown University) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    The biggest (most pleasant) surprise on Asia has been the Obama administration’s willingness to use pressure on North Korea. After campaigning on a promise to meet with the leaders of nations like North Korea without conditions, the Obama White House has turned out to be quite hard line vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

    Of course, it would be difficult to miss the obvious failure of Ambassador Chris Hill’s conciliatory negotiating style at the end of the Bush administration — let alone the fact that North Korea responded to President Obama’s initial promises of engagement by detonating a second nuclear device. Still, in the case of North Korea the administration seems to have embraced the premise that there must be consequences for proliferators.

    The administration has moved forward smartly with implementation of sanctions under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 (unlike the Bush administration’s decision not to implement UNSCR 1718 after the first nuclear test) and thus far the Special Envoy for North Korea has refused to sit down with the North Koreans until they first agree to return to the Six Party Talks. Even the visit of former President Clinton to Pyongyang was done with most of the administration holding its nose and limiting the mission to the humanitarian goal of bringing home two American journalists taken by the North. We will see how long this holds, but for now the administration looks pretty tough.

    The Obama administration deserves praise for its selection of an Asia team. There were more than 60 “advisors” on Asia to the Obama campaign (close to the total number of advisors for the entire world working with McCain). Most of these advisors were calling for wholesale changes in Asia policy, echoing the usual canards about the Bush administration’s “unilateralism” and “militarism.” But in the end, the top jobs in NSC, State and Defense were filled by non-partisan centrists and pragmatists who recognized the successes of the Bush administration’s Asia strategy and wanted to tweak rather than redefine the U.S. approach to the region. Better yet, the top officials at State, NSC and DOD are associated with the successes of the Clinton administration’s Asia policy, including the revitalization of the U.S.-Japan alliance and the successful negotiations to bring China into the WTO. The team is professional, knowledgeable and very reassuring to the region.

    The administration deserves criticism on two fronts. The complete lack of a trade strategy leaves the United States without any tools to counter the growth of exclusive regional economic arrangements within Asia. This will become obvious when Obama travels to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in two weeks and calls for an open and inclusive architecture like his predecessors — only his predecessors actually were bringing something to the table in terms of trade liberalizing agreements with Korea and other countries in the region. The second area of criticism would be the administration’s willingness to pull punches on human rights and democracy. The president’s decision not to meet the Dalai Lama in Washington in August (the first rebuff to the Tibetan Spiritual Leader by a U.S. President in recent memory) was particularly problematic.

    The Obama administration will grow tired of China. Obama expanded the Bush administration’s Strategic Economic Dialogue into a Strategic and Economic Dialogue and raised expectations of progress with Beijing on everything from climate change to Iran and North Korea. But in the wake of the financial crisis Beijing sees itself as externally stronger and internally more vulnerable. That is not a recipe for more cooperation with Washington. Chinese support for North Korea’s economy is increasing in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test and China will be relying on coal for 80 percent of its energy no matter how well discussions of climate change cooperation go (and they are not going that well). Then there is the unyielding PLA position on the South China Sea, cyber-security and a host of other security problems that will vex the Obama administration’s China policy over the coming years. Usually, new administrations come into power in Washington having talked themselves into a tense relationship with Beijing during the election campaign and then they adjust to a more centrist and stable relationship with China (true of Regan, Carter, Clinton and G.W. Bush). The Obama administration came in without having engaged in a contentious debate over China policy with McCain, but may now find itself under increasing pressure to be tough with Beijing.

  7. Will Inboden (Senior Vice-President of the Legatum Institute) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    If one year ago on Election Day someone would have told me that the same President Obama whose campaign promised to repair America’s global image would spend his first year in office visibly rejecting human rights and democracy promotion, I would not have believed it. Though I and many others have commented on this previously, it still ranks as the biggest surprise (and biggest disappointment) of his foreign policy thus far. Especially since America’s historic commitment to human rights and democracy promotion has been one of its greatest soft power assets and sources of global goodwill.

    One thing worthy of praise is the administration’s emerging Africa policy. President Obama’s speech in Ghana was an admirable call for improved governance, reduced corruption, growth through enterprise, and African responsibility for Africa’s future — and it could not have been delivered by a more effective messenger.

    One growing worry is the Obama administration’s shaky relations with the Great Powers which — whether from poor personal chemistry or divergent interests — could significantly hinder U.S. leverage going forward on several fronts. U.S.-Japan relations are near their worst in a generation (though the Obama administration was dealt a tough hand with the DPJ’s election victory). The chill between Sarkozy and Obama is also hurting U.S. relations with France. Russia has thus far offered no significant reciprocal gestures for the U.S. capitulation on missile defense. Obama enjoys little chemistry with Gordon Brown (though to be fair, few leaders do) and has signaled indifference towards the U.S.-UK Special Relationship. U.S.-Germany ties are strong but will soon be tested by Germany’s economic relationship with Iran. The Obama administration’s China policy is too focused on financing U.S. debt while not pressing China to play a more constructive role on North Korea and Iran’s nuclear weapons programs. And while the administration is atoning for its early neglect of India by hosting Prime Minister Singh soon for a state visit, the U.S.-India relationship will need consistent and high level attention in order to reach its potential — attention that it is not clear the White House will maintain, especially if doing so incurs China’s displeasure.

  8. Peter Feaver (Director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies/ Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    I am surprised at how quickly President Obama lost confidence in the Afghan strategy he announced to great fanfare in March and how slowly and publicly (with daily read-outs and extensive tick-tock backgrounders) he is conducting Afghan Strategy Review 2.0. I expected that he would find it politically very challenging to maintain support for his war policies, but I did not expect he would make the job so much harder in this way. If this review results in (a) a sound strategy that (b) President Obama wholeheartedly commits himself to so (c) he spends the political capital necessary to forge a domestic and international coalition behind it, then the do-over will have done some good. But it feels like such a positive outcome is slipping away.

    The best decision President Obama made in the foreign policy arena is one of the first decisions President-elect Obama made: keeping Secretary Gates. This step took some political courage on his part, because he had based his electoral campaign on a scorched-earth critique of President Bush. Keeping Secretary Gates and some other key figures (such as Iraq/Afghanistan czar Lt. Gen. Doug Lute) ensured a stable transition and meant that for the first half of the year there were very few transition-related hiccups. Given how difficult it is to change commander-in-chief horses in midstream, this is a great accomplishment.

    The aspect of Obama foreign policy that most concerns me may be the flip-side of the praiseworthy piece: how long it is taking for Obama to settle into the role of wartime commander-in-chief. It could be that the decision to continue the bulk of President Bush’s war council (and thus its policies) reflected a decision to delay taking ownership responsibilities for the war. To my reading, that is the connective thread that stitches together various problematic aspects of Obama’s foreign policy thus far: peddling stale campaign rhetoric long after its sell-by date; repudiating his own comprehensive Afghan Strategy Review and launching a new one; developing a tin ear for civil-military relations and wartime alliance relations; spending so little time explaining his national security policies to the American people; giving his political team such a prominent role in national security; etc.

    I think it is highly unlikely that the national security team that is in place today will be in place one year from now. I would not want to bet which principal will leave, but the betting money is someone will leave. Personnel transitions tend to be associated with friction and other mischief, and the causal arrow can go in both ways: intra-team friction leads to early departures and new arrivals disrupt established modus vivendi. So my prediction is that the “no drama Obama” mantra will have proven unsustainable by November 2010. This is not something to celebrate nor is it something to dread. Every administration has to deal with shake-ups and I wouldn’t be surprised if President Obama proves he can deal with it better than most.

  9. Dov Zakheim (Vice President at Booz Allen Hamilton/ Center for Strategic and International Studies) said, on November 5, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    I was surprised by the administration’s deliberate downplaying of human rights issues. One might have expected a Democratic administration to emphasize such concerns rather than to pursue policies that are often ascribed to realist Republicans.

    On the other hand, given the president’s deliberate and sustained outreach to states with whom America’s relations have been chilly at best, all of which have terrible human rights records, perhaps the decision not to mention those rights is not really surprising at all.

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