The first 1,460 days (or 10 ways to grade Obama’s foreign policy)

Because it is downright silly to evaluate a president after only 100 days — especially on his performance in an area as complex and wide-ranging as foreign policy — and because it is doubly unfair to evaluate someone by arbitrary metrics, let’s try another approach. Let’s establish a scale by which we can judge the ...

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U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah II in the Oval Office at the White House April 21, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama and Abdullah had a private meeting in the Personal Dining Room before meeting in the Oval Office. King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to visit Obama in the Oval Office and used the opportunity to push the U.S. to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Because it is downright silly to evaluate a president after only 100 days -- especially on his performance in an area as complex and wide-ranging as foreign policy -- and because it is doubly unfair to evaluate someone by arbitrary metrics, let's try another approach. Let’s establish a scale by which we can judge the President after four years in office, one full term. This way he can know in advance how he's going to be graded (we’re fairly confident he is a loyal FP reader), and we can discuss his presidential achievements and slip ups in foreign policy in more meaningful terms.

Of course, with a couple hundred countries and dozens of cross-cutting issue areas to consider, it would be impossible to list every important metric in one blog posting....even given my tendency toward, um, full-figured postings. So, let me pick ten and you can add others.

Because it is downright silly to evaluate a president after only 100 days — especially on his performance in an area as complex and wide-ranging as foreign policy — and because it is doubly unfair to evaluate someone by arbitrary metrics, let’s try another approach. Let’s establish a scale by which we can judge the President after four years in office, one full term. This way he can know in advance how he’s going to be graded (we’re fairly confident he is a loyal FP reader), and we can discuss his presidential achievements and slip ups in foreign policy in more meaningful terms.

Of course, with a couple hundred countries and dozens of cross-cutting issue areas to consider, it would be impossible to list every important metric in one blog posting….even given my tendency toward, um, full-figured postings. So, let me pick ten and you can add others.

1. Iraq

This is the issue that more than any other in international relations differentiated Obama from his opponents during the 2008 election cycle. And with this issue, like so many others, the initial metric is going to be: does he leave it better than he found it? In this case, this will mean living up to his promise to withdraw most American troops…while at the same time ensuring that Iraq doesn’t backslide into chaos endangering the region. (It’ll be interesting to see whether, if confronted with the possibility of disorder in Iraq, Obama and Americans in general are willing to accept a strongman who puts a lid on the country even if that means democracy is not exactly robust. You know, like Saddam.) It is also essential that problems within Iraq do not spill over into other countries be they renewed stirrings of a desire for an independent Kurdistan or tensions associated with Shiite-Sunni rivalry. By this metric, the most likely outcome — messy, below optimal democracy, reasonable stability, moderate violence, and no need for more than say, 50,000 U.S. troops — would be seen as a victory.

2. Iran

Right now the relationship is strained — which is a polite way of saying we’ve been at each other’s throats for three decades — but there is nonetheless hope for a dialogue that produces a somewhat enhanced relationship and a tolerable outcome on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian regional aspirations, especially as expressed through the actions of its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, are also worrisome. Live up to the hopes by establishing some kind of on-going, even sporadic dialogue and a peaceful nuclear program with ironclad inspection and enforcement mechanisms that include disposing of waste elsewhere, probably in Russia, would earn a pretty good grade. Progress by covertly and overtly U.S.-backed Iranian reformers producing a chance at a bigger diplomatic opening and more control of Hezbollah’s meddling outside Iran would be even better. Triggering and allowing a nuclear arms race in the region is an automatic F. Working this all out through effective multilateral cooperation is a key to a passing grade.

3. AfPak

I’m a pessimist about our prospects here so frankly, I would consider it a passing grade if we don’t end up with more troops there than we have right now and if the whole of Pakistan is not being run by fundamentalists. Losing more of Pakistan or Afghanistan to the Taliban, al Qaeda, or other extremists or having the two countries serve as a base for another attack on India or elsewhere, would bring the overall grade down a lot. This is Obama’s war. Colin Powell’s “you break it, you own it” dictum applies. Capture Osama you get an automatic A here, though more importantly, the president probably also gets an automatic reelection. Actually achieve military success and shore up democracy and attitudes toward America in Pakistan and not only does Obama get an A but Richard Holbrooke gets a Nobel Prize and probably his own talk show or cabinet post, whichever he would prefer.  (Please note: I am a very big Holbrooke fan. If he can’t help here, no one can.)

4. Israel-Palestine

This is an area in which most American presidents are happy to keep the burners set to simmer. But few American presidents have raised expectations of better relations with the Muslim world and this is the symbolic issue for the entire region. Some concrete progress must therefore be made for his regional policy to be considered a success. A Syria deal seems to me the most likely outcome, but the successful development and introduction to you should forgive the expression, a roadmap to a two-state solution is a sure-fire way to push up the overall grade almost regardless of what happens elsewhere. Engineer this and Obama gets the Nobel Prize (sorry George Mitchell, maybe you can finally become baseball commissioner.)

5. China

Ok, now we have a G2, what are we going to do with it? This is an area where Obama can blaze a real trail in 21st Century foreign policy, forging a doctrine of interdependence with a critical partner that is also a likely rival on key issues. Given that no progress can be expected on arms control, economic recovery, combating climate change, managing global trade, and dealing with hotspots from Iran to North Korea without Sino-U.S. cooperation…and that more progress can be made than may be expected if we forge a new kind of really substantive working partnership….this is an issue that is not in the headlines daily that ought to be front of mind for the President nonetheless. This is really where an Obama doctrine outlining how the U.S. now must learn to work with countries with which we have major differences will take its most meaningful shape. Let its long-term development being overtaken by successive crises of the hour and again, automatic F.

6. The Atlantic Alliance

Eight-five cents of every defense dollar on earth is spent within the Atlantic Alliance. If the United States is to slip the bonds of being the world’s sheriff, the only way to do it is to revitalize this alliance and to develop practical guidelines for out-of-theater actions where support is not as anemic as it has been recently for our AfPak efforts. Further, these relationships are the foundations of America’s foreign policy historically and these countries are on many issues our most natural allies. The United States cannot achieve multilateral success without restoring and maintaining a partnership here at a level that transcends the grievous damage done during the past eight years. 

7. Reinventing the Multilateral System

Everything needs to be fixed or newly created…the IMF, the World Bank, regional banks, global financial regulations more generally, the non-proliferation regime, the WTO, the UN Security Council, a global environmental organization-and it needs to be done with a new core group leading the way. This includes the United States, Japan, the EU and the BRICs.  Find a way to strengthen these organizations, fund them, create structures that reflect the new emerging global power structure, move beyond the toothlessness of previous global regimes and Obama may do more good than being successful in any of the other areas cited here. Do little and it will make it much harder for the United States to leverage its constrained resources into the kind formula for international leadership that the century will demand.

8. Combating Climate Change

While mentioned above, failing to set a price for carbon or to take other crucial steps to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels could cast the administration in a very bad light in the eyes of future generations (those with gills and webbed-feet). While I overstate likely outcomes, we are in a period which much produce progress or damage may well be done that could have very serious security consequences for us even beyond implying continuing dependence on dangerous and unstable oil-producing regimes. There are plenty of metrics here but the ultimate one is simple: implement a carbon pricing mechanism by the end of these four years or you get another automatic F.

9. Quarterbacking the Global Economic Recovery (This Includes Protecting the Well-Springs of Domestic Economic Strength — Notably the Dollar)

This is the issue on the minds of everyone right now and if the crisis endures well into 2010 it is already likely that mid-term elections will make it harder for the President to achieve other goals here. Fail to engineer a substantial recovery by 2012 and the administration will be unable to get the extension from the professor that it inevitably will argue it needs to achieve all the goals set out above. Get ‘er done and not only does the president get a high overall grade, but he gets that automatic four year extension on all his other work — a four year extension. Be seen as responsible for permanently weakening the dollar and driving up the price of borrowing for a debt-addicted United States, automatic F.

10. Manage the Unexpected and Yet Defining Crisis We Can Hardly Predict

It will come…perhaps several will come…or they will involve hostages or terrorist attacks or a coup or an unexpected natural disaster and as the previous occupant of the Oval Office (who achieved a very unusual F for his eight years of foreign policy mismanagement, bad study habits, and violation of the U.S. constitution) will tell you, all your progress can be undone in the public’s eye in an instant. This is a critical part of being president and a key here is setting up a team and a process that can handle the unexpected. Has he done this? Well, he certainly has taken promising steps in that direction.

Extra-Credit

Several areas may be important in a real way, but they probably won’t rise to the level of the ten cited above in shaping his final grade. These include keeping a lid on Mexico and the Quartersphere, the part of the hemisphere we will really be focusing on re: drugs, stability, and immigration, the regional issues that touch our borders.  Also: Many of the thorniest foreign policy problems we face can be found in Africa (this may be where the unexpected crises come from although my money is on traditional locations or Central Asia). Massive war, genocide or humanitarian disaster(s) in Africa on Obama’s watch may damage his grade. Sadly, it only ever takes maintaining the unhappy status quo there for American presidents not to be graded on their performance there at all. Bush probably did better there than most recent presidents and it didn’t help his grade one bit. Finally, if the world continues to love us…or the president…or his powerful secret weapon, Michelle…which is the area in which perhaps the most progress has been made in the first three months, he’ll also get extra credit.

So, that’s my take. Now start studying Mr. President. There will be a test tomorrow. And every day you remain in office.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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