Obama’s six-month foreign policy report card: Solid A- for the team
We have come to the conclusion of the first six months of the Obama presidency. I know. It seems like a lot longer to me, too. In fact, to me history is starting to look kind of like that Steinberg map of the United States from New York’s perspective. Most of the map is New ...
We have come to the conclusion of the first six months of the Obama presidency. I know. It seems like a lot longer to me, too. In fact, to me history is starting to look kind of like that Steinberg map of the United States from New York’s perspective. Most of the map is New York, then there’s a thin strip of New Jersey, then there is a brief stretch of nothingness in which you find Kansas City, Nebraska, Las Vegas and some rocks and mountains and then there is L.A.. Same with history: the Obama Epoch looms large, next comes the fire swamps of the Bush era, then Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are standing there waving, then a couple of wars, a cowboy movie, Abe Lincoln, and then George Washington.
Nonetheless, despite this skewed perspective, I have been following Obama’s foreign policy team pretty closely this past half year and I think it is time for an interim report card. Note: all these evaluations are entirely subjective and can be raised in the future by bribing the teacher with free rides on Air Force One or tuna salad sandwiches in the White House mess. Also: I’m going to offer grades for individual performance and then, in my next post, grades for key initiatives because it is hard to know just who is driving what or deserves credit for which portion of which initiatives.
Barack Obama, Grade: A
Woody Allen said 85 percent of life is just showing up. Well, in this case, for this first six month period, 85 percent of Barack Obama’s foreign policy grade is for just showing up. In the first instance, just for showing up in Washington and showing George Bush and his policies that were anathema to so much of the world to the door. In the next several instances from showing up at summits or meetings in London, Prague, Paris, and Cairo (among other places) and sending a message that America is entering a new phase in foreign policy in which engagement, multilateralism and pragmatism will drive U.S. actions. Of course, we all know that the first six months’ core policy of “I’m Barack Obama and you’re not” won’t carry on much longer. There are problems that need to be solved and some of them are complicated by the small fact that they are actually insoluble. But for now, give the guy credit. He has actually installed himself at the center of the foreign policy apparatus, put foreign policy atop his list of priorities and has been an engaged, informed chief executive and commander in chief. In fact, if anything, he has made himself too important to U.S. foreign policy and he needs to delegate more. But that’ll come…because he’ll have no choice.
Joe Biden, Grade: B
The fact that he is even on this list is to his credit. Most VPs disappear without a trace on the foreign policy front. And after the Cheney example, there was every reason to think the next VP would be permanently sealed into that undisclosed location. But Obama has turned to Biden for his experience, has made him a partner in policymaking and has made him a spokesperson for the administration on key issues. Does he sometimes stick his foot in it? You betcha. But so far no real damage has been done and Obama has often turned to Biden (supported by a good team of advisors like Ron Klain and Tony Blinken) for guidance that has, reportedly, been taken very seriously.
Rahm Emanuel, Grade: A-
Emanuel is the most powerful White House chief of staff since Sherman Adams (in the Eisenhower administration). That’s saying something since White House chief of staff is one of the most powerful jobs in the world…and one of the most consistently under-estimated. Rahm is in the room at key meetings and is a critical force to be reckoned with. He has played a crucial role in making key political appointments, he has shaped policy discussions, he has worked the Hill. In fact, if I were a foreign leader and I couldn’t get to Obama himself, I’d probably go to Rahm before Hillary or Jim Jones. But that’s just me. ‘Cause I have a soft-spot for “self-hating Jews.” Why is it an A minus? Well, you just can’t get an A in foreign policy when you piss so many people off. And further, it doesn’t serve the president well to have so much foreign policy power concentrated in the immediate office of the president (David Axelrod, Greg Craig, Valerie Jarrett, and others have weighed in on big issues here often causing some to thing the hub of U.S. foreign policy at the moment is not the NSC but wherever the president and his staff are.)
Jim Jones, Grade: B
Tell them all to go to hell, Jim. The reality is that despite all the negative buzz … mostly from people inside the administration that wanted or still want your job … the Obama NSC was set up quickly, is running smoothly, is staffing the president well and hasn’t recommended that he invade Iraq. (Admittedly you did recommend pushing forward in AfPak and that will likely prove a very serious mistake…but we’ll get to that later.) While one of your colleagues said “he just isn’t suited for a job demanding 12 hour days and attention to detail”, you are there when the president needs you and you add important value on the military front. You’re still spinning up to speed on foreign policy per se and you may have let delegating go too far (give a guy in Washington too much rope and he’s likely to use it to try to hang you) but I say, you’re off to a good start.
Tom Donilon, Grade: A
You’re Jones’s number two and he has fully empowered you to be the chief operating officer of the NSC. Thus far, the reports from all quarters are that the inter-agency process is working well, that you’re a big time problem solver and that your quiet professionalism is paying off. Not bad for a guy whose previous foreign policy high water mark was being the force behind the glory that was Warren Christopher. And for all those folks eager to push Jones in front of a train, careful. No matter what the conventional wisdom is now, look at history. Number twos at the NSC often get to be number one.
Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, Grade: B+
You guys are Obama’s boys, his body men, and seen as real power players as a result despite your respective traditionally second tier roles as mouthpiece for the NSC and NSC chief of staff. You have the president’s trust and that is better than any title in Washington. That said, careful gentlemen. In-fighting in Washington is a long, often subtle game and he who is up today is almost certainly he who has a target on his back tomorrow. Denis, you’ve got big time reporters steaming at your “arrogance” (their word, not mine…please, don’t hurt me…) and you’ve made a few missteps…like getting out in front of State’s negotiations to restore an Ambassador to Syria…that have generated some ill-will elsewhere in the administration. Even among people who slap you on the back daily.
Hillary Clinton, Grade: A-
Your first job was to scotch that buzz that you would be stealing the president’s limelight, working against him. But you’ve got experience with letting a guy stand in the spotlight while you do a lot of the heavy lifting…and the senate choice to be a “workhorse and not a showhorse” served you well, too. Frankly, they should have used you more, earlier. No one in the administration other than the president is a more effective spokesperson, has more impact overseas, or works harder to get it right. No one other than the president is even close. Your role will almost certainly grow. Only missteps to note: you skipped off the talking points on North Korea and then the Gulf defense umbrella in the past couple weeks … but frankly, in both cases, you advanced the administration’s interests. And some members of your team at State are viewed as Team Hillary and not as foreign policy pros, common in early days, but they need to work to reach out to the foreign service and prove themselves.
Robert Gates, Grade: A
Gates is perhaps the best example of the American national security technocrat the country has produced in the past half century. His smooth, service-to-his-country oriented, transition from serving as George Bush’s SecDef to Barack Obama’s was masterful and has helped keep Iraq and AfPak from dominating the news even more than they have. He has spoken truth in terms of cutting back on defense waste and he has done what he has done for every president, provided trusted, measured advice. But those who know him are looking forward to the memoirs. He is a measured man but he has strong opinions that can be expressed rather colorfully. Look out Don Rumsfeld.
Special Envoys, Grade: A
I don’t much like the proliferation of special envoys throughout the U.S. government. But the guys on point for big foreign policy initiatives have dived in and made a difference early, notably Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell. (Dennis Ross’s role changed too soon to judge, but reports are he is adding very real value at the NSC now.)
Holbrooke still uses the first person singular too often but there is literally no one smarter or more capable on the entire Dem foreign policy bench. When people say Obama has a team of envoys all of whom could be Secretaries of State, they mean Holbrooke (Mitchell could, too, of course, but Holbrooke is at another level of knowledge, experience and energy). Mitchell has done well to build trust on the Israeli-Palestinian issues and the result has been that there is hope for progress on Syria and ultimately for movement toward a two-state solution. He is playing a big role making that possible.
Okay … so you probably think, soft-headed former Clintonite is giving these guys a free ride. Not so fast. I think the team is very solid and doing pretty darn well all things considered. But as for their policies? Er…um…I’m a bit more concerned there. But you are going to have to wait for those grades until Monday.
Matthew Cavanaugh-Pool/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is a former editor of Foreign Policy and CEO of The FP Group. Twitter: @djrothkopf
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.