Grading Obama’s first 100 days: Peter Feaver

Grading Obama’s first 100 days: Peter Feaver

I would give him a B-.

On foreign policy, the Obama team has earned a respectable B- (the equivalent, in these grade-inflated days, of the old "gentleman’s C"). I don’t see the case for saying he has been a failure thus far. On the contrary, he has been better than many feared, at least on foreign policy (one can reach a different conclusion in the domestic arena). Nor, except for the kool-aid drinking set, is it credible to give him the B or higher that grade-grubbers seek. If I saw his performance in one of my students, however, I would send that student a cautionary, reminding him about standard academic practices of attribution and footnoting, and warning him not to try to pass off other people’s work as his own original work.

On the major issues that required real policy decisions, Obama has largely continued the Bush policy. I defy someone to identify how the Af-Pak decision was substantially different from the trajectory that the Bush team was on. It was sold with different rhetoric, but on policy, it was the same. Same policy, different letterhead.

The Iraq policy is also more similar than not, at least in terms of what Obama has done thus far (embrace the Status of Forces Agreement and stiff the "get out of Iraq now" caucus). The real test for him will come in June if, as seems possible, General Odierno recommends sliding the June 2009 deadline for getting U.S. troops out of the cities a bit in order not to precipitate a collapse in Mosul (and perhaps elsewhere).

I can understand a grade appeal on the other "war on terror" policies.  It seems to me that for the most part, President Obama is looking for as much stylistic/atmospheric/rhetorical difference as he can spin, but is keeping the main elements of the Bush policy in tact.  He hasn’t even closed Gitmo yet; he is just promising to do so in the future.

With all of this, however, he is skirting with an attribution problem because he and his spinners pretend these are bold and dramatic changes. Yes, there are some real differences — I don’t think the Bush team would have released the lawyer memos on coercive interrogations over the objections of the intelligence community — but they are on the margins.

It reminds me very much of a student who "borrows" another person’s paper, changes the font, reformats the text, tweaks the acknowledgements, and trims it here and there before handing it in as his own work. Of course, in governing, unlike in academia, passing off other people’s work as your own is both acceptable and, at times, laudatory. The off-putting aspect is the pettiness of criticizing the very people whose work you are emulating.

So I am actually, on balance, reasonably positive about President Obama’s foreign policy thus far. However, 100 days is so soon, it could hardly even count as a midterm grade. On many issues, Obama has yet to really engage.

Can anyone explain what is his policy regarding North Korea? And while we know Obama is willing to drop the precondition that Iran suspend its enrichment while engaging in talks with the United States, this tactical shift does not a strategy make. The rest of his Iran policy, so far as I can determine, involves pressuring the Europeans to increase their economic coercion of Iran (bigger stick) and offering more generous terms of U.S. détente with Iran earlier in the process (bigger carrots). The Bush administration tried this very sticks-with-carrots strategy and did not succeed with it. If there is more to Obama’s Iran strategy than that, I haven’t seen it yet. What about China? What about India? What about Japan? To get a good grade in this foreign policy class, there has to be a coherent strategy for Asia, and I don’t see it yet either.

A final word on the principal focus of the Obama foreign policy team thus far: rebuilding America’s soft power by cashing in on Obama’s celebrity status and shifting as many toxic assets onto the Bush legacy ledger as they can.  The former is reasonable and the latter is understandable. But I think the Obama team has come pretty close to playing both strings out as far as they can go. From now on, what will matter is not whether Chavez says nice things about Obama, but whether the revived soft power real results. And it will get harder and harder to win applause lines by apologizing for the policies of your predecessor when you continue them in important respects.

Peter Feaver