Grading Obama

After U.S. President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office, Foreign Policy asked a group of experts to grade him on everything from North Korea to nukes. On the anniversary of his historic election, we've reprised the experiment -- and found out that the White House isn't doing so well.

Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images
Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images

After U.S. President Barack Obama's first 100 days in office, Foreign Policy invited some of its favorite bloggers, pundits, and political experts to analyze his foreign policy and help us create a report card for the young administration. The bulk of our respondents gave Bs, with a final score in the B+ range.

After U.S. President Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office, Foreign Policy invited some of its favorite bloggers, pundits, and political experts to analyze his foreign policy and help us create a report card for the young administration. The bulk of our respondents gave Bs, with a final score in the B+ range.

FP repeated the exercise on the one-year anniversary of Obama’s historic election, with much international-affairs water under the bridge: his speech in Cairo, the leadership switch in Afghanistan, and the protracted back-and-forth with Israel over settlements, for instance.

This time, the experts have stopped grading on the curve. Obama scored only an average of a B-: five As, nine Bs, four Cs, and five Ds.

What happened? Some argue that Obama’s real policies haven’t (and couldn’t possibly) match his rhetorical brilliance. Others argue he has punted where he should have played, such as on the question of strategy in Afghanistan and the presidential crisis in Honduras. Still others argue that while the sheen may have faded, the policies remain sound.

FP has grouped the responses by grade. Click through for the full report — and check out the loyal opposition’s response on the Shadow Government blog.

The As

“In the next year, Obama’s final grade will depend on such issues as his decisions on Afghanistan and how he handles an Iran that refuses to live up to its commitments. But if the past is prologue, he should do well.”

Lawrence J. Korb of the Center for American Progress

Paul Cruickshank of the Center for Law and Security at New York University

Marc Lynch of George Washington University and the FP blog

Parag Khanna of the New America Foundation

Charles A. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations and Georgetown University

The Bs

“Progress has been evolutionary, not revolutionary, because U.S. policy is rooted in national interests that do not change dramatically with a change in the occupant of the White House.”

“While the administration cannot be blamed for the mess it inherited, it as of yet offers no real strategy for the future.”

J. Alexander Thier of the U.S. Institute of Peace

Paul Pillar of Georgetown University

Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center

Sharon Kelly of Human Rights First

Erica Gaston of the Open Society Institute

Sarah E. Mendelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies

James Joyner of the Atlantic Council

Fawaz A. Gerges of the London School of Economics

Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council

The Cs

“The Obama appeal? It is fading fast.”

“On AfPak and Iran, he is a better Hamlet than Jude Law on Broadway”

Geneive Abdo of the Century Foundation and

Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute

Gianni Riotta of Il Sole 24 Ore

Roque Planas of New York University

Philip I. Levy of the American Enterprise Institute

The Ds

It seems almost a cheap shot to give the president low marks on a foreign policy that is so obviously failing.”

“The president’s UN general assembly speech presented the problem: Obama positioned himself above the nation, mediating between us and the world, his job to restrain America’s ugly aggressive instincts and apologize for past crimes. No wonder friends and allies wonder where this all leads.”

Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations

Otto J. Reich of the George W. Bush administration

Michael Scheuer of the CIA

Hillary Mann Leverett of the consulting firm Stratega and the blog

Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute

Lawrence J. Korb

Grade: A

In many ways, the foreign-policy situation that President Barack Obama inherited was as bad, if not worse, than the economic mess bequeathed to him by the Bush administration. And in the year since his election, Obama has reversed the decline in American security and by his decisions in key areas has put us on the path to recovery.

In Afghanistan, the situation was, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serious and deteriorating. People in the region, especially in Pakistan, worried about our staying power, particularly since the Bush administration had put the war on the back burner and refused even to consider the requests of Generals Dan McNeill and David McKiernan for more troops. Within two months, Obama made his intentions clear by doubling the number of troops, placing one of the military’s most accomplished generals in charge, and asking him to make a no-holds-barred assessment. Using that assessment, plus inputs from his experienced foreign-policy team — including a secretary of defense who has served six American presidents and directed the CIA, a former NATO commander, and this country’s most effective diplomat — he is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of his next steps, something the previous administration never did before invading Iraq. Moreover, his decision to increase the forces in and focus on Afghanistan has no doubt had an impact on Pakistan’s decision to go after the Taliban.

In Iraq, the Bush administration, on its way out the door, had signed the strategic framework agreement, which obligated us to withdraw our forces from cities and towns by June 30, 2009, and from the country completely by Dec. 31, 2011. But it had not developed a plan for moving the 57 brigade equivalents or the millions of pieces of equipment over the next three years. Working with Gen. Raymond Odierno, Obama developed a plan to wait until after the Iraqi elections in January to withdraw the bulk of our combat troops and replace half of them with advisory and assistance brigades with enough firepower to protect U.S. forces, diplomats, and aid workers, as well as to work with the Iraqi forces during our remaining time in the country. The plan has worked so well that Odierno has actually accelerated the withdrawal pace because setting out a plan to leave has convinced the Iraqis that we are leaving, thus diminishing their incentive to attack U.S. forces.

Our relationship with a resurgent Russia was badly strained, primarily because of the ill-advised scheme to place long-range missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Zbigniew Brzezinski rightly characterized it as a weapons system that does not work, against a threat that does not exist, to protect people who have not asked to be protected. By scrapping this system, which the Russians perceived as a threat to its strategic deterrent, Obama had been able to reset our relations with Russia and obtain their cooperation on negotiating a new START treaty and allowing our supplies to cross their territory on the way to Afghanistan.

These moves and many others — including Obama’s reaching out to the Arab and Muslim world in his Cairo speech, negotiating with the Iranians directly and without preconditions, and reinvigorating the Middle East peace process — have improved the United States’ standing in the world. As the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded, “Confidence in Barack Obama’s foreign policy judgments stands behind a resurgent U.S. image in many countries.” This no doubt was what led him to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

But getting off to a good start is not enough. In the next year, Obama’s final grade will depend on such issues as his decisions on Afghanistan and how he handles an Iran that refuses to live up to its commitments. But if the past is prologue, he should do well.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a senior advisor to the Center for Defense Information.

Paul Cruickshank

Grade: A-

U.S. President Barack Obama’s Cairo speech in June struck all the right chords. But, Obama has failed to sufficiently personally engage on the issue that matters most in the struggle against violent Islamist extremism: the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although the president appears caught in a bind over Afghanistan, his foreign-policy team should be lauded for persuading Pakistan to finally dedicate real resources to confronting al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas. But even more engagement and resources will be necessary to remove the danger posed by what remains a terrorist safe-haven, a threat underlined by the fact that the FBI just foiled what appears to be the most significant terrorist plot on U.S. soil since the September 11 attacks.

Paul Cruickshank is a fellow at the Center on Law and Security at New York University’s School of Law.

Marc Lynch

Grade: A-

The administration has moved from the initial period of “reset” to the tougher period of implementation. A lot of people focus on the inevitable lack of immediate progress — some because they want change and are growing frustrated, others because they oppose his agenda and seek every opportunity to declare failure. I get frustrated, and I’ve been critical of some of Obama’s tactics and priorities. But stepping back from the day-to-day triumphs and frustrations shows an administration which has come a long way in less than ten months.

This is a global perspective, but I’ll focus mainly on the Middle East. Obama has transformed the tone and tenor of America’s relationship with the Islamic world, downgrading the focus on terrorism and al Qaeda in favor of a broadly based outreach and engagement. The Cairo speech isn’t enough, and the follow-up hasn’t been as visible and sustained as I’d like — but the fact is that al Qaeda today is as marginal in Arab politics as it has been in a decade, and Obama deserves credit for that. Obama has done a great job of maintaining his commitment to withdraw responsibly from Iraq despite all sorts of pressures and temptations to change his mind, and has not overreacted to each day’s new crisis. The engagement with Syria continues. He has chosen to engage seriously with the decision-making about Afghanistan and has run an impressively inclusive and thoughtful deliberation process despite the impatience of advocates for escalation or withdrawal. And he has done an extremely impressive job of building a global coalition toward Iran and has made more progress on the nuclear front than most expected.

Obama has been less successful in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian track. After an outstanding beginning — when he demonstrated his strong commitment to achieving a negotiated two-state solution and correctly decided to call for an Israeli settlement freeze — his team allowed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to drag the process down into the tar pits to die. He should have pivoted away from the settlements battle months ago, and now is paying the price. The administration has also struggled with Palestinian politics, relying heavily on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but undermining their legitimacy and failing to do anything to alleviate the suffering of Gaza.

Nobody expected Obama to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace, end the Iranian nuclear standoff, or to transform the Islamic world in 10 months. And he hasn’t. But he has accomplished quite a lot and has set the United States on a far better course in the region. Impatience is clearly growing, and skepticism is setting in about his ability to deliver. He may well fail. But for now, I think the broad contours of his policy are playing out reasonably well.

Marc Lynch is an associate professor of political science and international affairs and the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He blogs at

Parag Khanna

Grade: A-

In what feels like the fastest first year in presidential history, Obama has maintained the positive momentum with which he began — public opinion, indifference, and impatience be damned. There is a no-nonsense dialogue with and strategy building on Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran is on the receiving end of a full-court press; and a new nuclear agreement is under construction with Russia. Whether or not the Nobel Peace Prize was deserved or premature is certainly debatable — but that Obama has set a taboo-free course for U.S. foreign policy is not. It has been a fast year, so we still have time to see what fruit these efforts will bear. But the turnaround has certainly begun.

Parag Khanna is the director of the Global Governance Initiative and a senior research fellow in the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation.

Charles A. Kupchan

The substance of policy: A-

The execution of policy: Incomplete

President Barack Obama’s foreign policy is, across the board, headed in the right direction. The administration is cautiously exiting from Iraq. It is approaching Afghanistan with due caution, searching for a strategy that promises to stabilize the country while limiting the scope of the U.S. commitment and keeping means and ends in balance. Obama’s move to revamp plans for missile defense was sound and sensible (though its rollout was clumsy). His effort to reset relations with Russia is on course, and his willingness to pursue engagement with the likes of Iran, Cuba, and Syria is strategically sound, politically courageous, and being handled with appropriate sobriety. Obama has also succeeded in repairing America’s image in many quarters of the globe. The transatlantic partnership is on much better footing. Efforts to close Guántanamo, take serious steps to limit global warming, reform and strengthen multilateral institutions — these and other policies have restored confidence in U.S. leadership both at home and abroad.

Looking forward, the key challenge facing Obama is delivering, closing deals, turning policy initiatives into concrete outcomes. It is way too soon to proclaim, as critics often do, that the Obama administration is all talk and no action. On virtually all of the fronts in play, policy successes take years, not months. Closing a deal with the Russians on arms control, advancing diplomacy with Iran, finding the way forward in Afghanistan — only after more time has passed can we judge the outcome of Obama’s good intentions and sound policies. In the meantime, Obama would be wise to lay out clear road maps and timetables for advancing his ambitious agenda and obtaining clear deliverables to demonstrate that his policies are yielding concrete successes. As part of this effort, he should also begin laying the legislative groundwork at home. Obama certainly does not want to find himself having succeeded in reaching arms control agreements, new deals on climate change, or diplomatic breakthroughs with adversaries — only to have his efforts stymied by a recalcitrant Congress.

Charles A. Kupchan is a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images


J. Alexander Thier

Grade on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy: B+

The Obama administration gets an A for effort on Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. It has taken the issues of stability in these two countries, of paramount importance to U.S. foreign policy, off the back burner where they were boiling over while unwatched. The A-Team has finally arrived in Afghanistan, and they are treating the problem with a seriousness of purpose we have not seen since 2001. Some find the White House deliberations debilitating, but after eight years and the thorniest of imaginable problems, a serious debate is in order. Afghanistan is not a short-term problem, and after eight years of dithering, the new administration is taking some time to try to get it right. In Pakistan, we’ve gone from supporting an illegitimate military government inclined to make deals with insurgents, to a civilian (if only quasi-democratic) regime that seems more genuinely determined to fight the militancy swallowing up its country. We’ve also committed a serious chunk of change — $7.5 billion in nonmilitary aid over five years — to support the prosperity of its people and strengthen democratic governance. Finally, the promise of regional diplomacy to address regional stability is being actively pursued, not only with Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also bringing India, China, Russia, and even Iran into the conversation.

But the B+ grade reflects a few missteps or failures to anticipate larger problems. First, the Afghan election debacle was in part the result of mixed signals about our support for Karzai or other candidates, and a long-standing failure to make governmental accountability a central tenet of our engagement. This crisis has shaken both Afghan and American public opinion of the effort there. Second, even as we have done right by Pakistan, and they have increasingly come to own the fight against extremists, tension in our relationship has grown over the trust-deficit between the two countries. A concerted effort (back to that regional dialogue) is needed to really transform long-term prospects for peace there. And finally, as the debate on our engagement has unfolded, the administration has not been forceful or consistent enough in communicating our critical national security interests in the region. It’s not just about al Qaeda. Instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, the possibility of conflict between Pakistan and India, spreading instability in Central Asia, the failure of the NATO alliance: These all have serious, long-term negative implications for the United States, terrorism, nonproliferation, and NATO.

Fair or not, the final grade on Afghanistan and Pakistan will come to define the Obama administration’s foreign policy, at least in the first term — and could have something to do with its successful application for a post-graduate degree.

J. Alexander Thier is the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace and chair of the Institute’s Afghanistan and Pakistan working groups.

Paul Pillar

Grade: B+

The overall attitude and approach might warrant a higher grade, particularly as a stark and refreshing change from what came before. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, recognizes that foreign attitudes and relationships matter, that diplomacy is a tool to be used rather than a reward to be bestowed, and that a policy process is a better basis than relying on a leader’s gut for making major decisions of war and peace. Points are subtracted for bending to some narrower interests, such as in slapping tariffs on Chinese tires and retreating from what originally had been a firm stand against expanding West Bank settlements. The option-narrowing declaration that Afghanistan is a war of necessity may have set the stage for lower marks later in the term because of the war’s potential for draining attention and resources from other priorities.

Paul Pillar was deputy chief of the counterterrorism center at the CIA from 1997 to 1999. He is the director of graduate studies at Georgetown University’s security studies program.

Dmitri Trenin

Grade: B+

As president-elect, Barack Obama moved to reset the entire U.S. foreign policy. A year later, he is still committed to winding down U.S. military involvement in Iraq; defeating al Qaeda while stabilizing Afghanistan, and helping Pakistan stabilize itself; helping a Palestinian state emerge, in peace with Israel; engaging Iran in an effort to prevent it from going nuclear; negotiating away North Korea’s nukes; jointly reducing strategic arsenals with Russia and building a case for ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty; and addressing climate change. His biggest foreign-policy concern in the first year at the White House, of course, was mounting a concerted global effort to deal with the economic crisis.

He managed to restore America’s moral standing in the world through practical steps: closing Guantánamo, listening to other countries’ concerns, making U.S. goals clear, and boldly embracing a broad vision of the future. At the same time, Obama has been stepping carefully, seeking to combine lofty principles and pragmatic interests. Not only did he provide sustained leadership, but, almost miraculously, he managed to keep his high-powered and ambitious foreign policy team cooperating among themselves, instead of fighting with one another. Yet, he has not achieved much regarding his central international goals. And, he was visibly embarrassed by his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, probably granted more to stimulate his behavior than to recognize his good deeds.

Achievements will be exceedingly difficult to score. Afghanistan, the war he has adopted, does not look good. Neither does Pakistan. Reaching an acceptable agreement with Iran — making it a certifiably non-nuclear weapons state — will stretch almost to the limit the human capacity for diplomacy. In the short term, one thing looks surprisingly bright: relations with Russia, a non-priority on inauguration day, which is about to yield a new strategic arms reduction treaty and promises closer cooperation on high-priority issues, such as Afghanistan and Iran. To many observers, this may not amount to much. Yet, slightly over a year ago, the United States and Russia were on a collision course. Turning that relationship around has not been a bad thing.

Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Sharon Kelly and Human Rights First

Grade: B

On interrogation policy: A. President Barack Obama took swift and decisive action by shutting down the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program and mothballing secret prisons on his second full day in office. In August, his Task Force on Interrogations seconded that strong step by deciding that the Army interrogation manual should be the single standard for all agencies of the U.S. government.

These actions allowed the United Sates to begin to rebuild the respect that is so essential to successfully meeting the complex challenges that we as a nation face. Achieving energy security, protecting the environment, combating global terrorism, quelling insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq — these are all issues that require collaboration with allies and a strategy to win goodwill around the world. As Gen. Charles Krulak and Gen. Joseph Hoar — commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999 and commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command from 1991 to 1994, respectively — recently wrote: “If Americans torture and it comes to light — as it inevitably will — it embitters and alienates the very people we need most.”

An A on interrogation is important for the whole report card.

On Guantánamo: B or incomplete. Obama was off to a strong start when he announced last January that Guantánamo Bay’s prison would close within a year. The administration has less than three months to go and Members of Congress and the public are still anxiously awaiting a plan specifying what will happen to the detainees housed there.

In its defense, the administration inherited a real mess and has since confronted a concerted campaign of fear mongering led by former Vice President Dick Cheney. In the face of real logistical issues and made-up scare tactics, Obama’s recent comments at the United Nations reaffirming his commitment to swiftly close the facility were encouraging.

There’s no reason for delay. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Gen. David Petraeus, and other experts have stated that Guantánamo’s existence has undermined our national security interests. The most comprehensive study of terrorism cases prosecuted in U.S. courts demonstrates that our justice system is up to the job of prosecuting these complex cases — at least 195 terrorists have been convicted since the September 11 attacks. The American Correctional Association has declared that Americans have nothing to fear from terrorists incarcerated in U.S. prisons.

If the administration’s plan puts faith in our strong institutions, this grade could be raised to an A. Opting for unlimited detention without charge would undermine the progress made so far.

On Afghanistan: B- or incomplete. More needs to be done to guarantee that — when United States forces pick up someone in Afghanistan and detain him as a possible security threat — there are mechanisms in place to challenge that detention. Until this happens, U.S. detention policies will be at odds with its counterinsurgency goals in Afghanistan: we’ll be spending money on schools and roads to win over the population and then undermining our investment by holding people unfairly.

The Obama administration has made some improvements. In September, the Pentagon announced new procedures for the 600 detainees being held in Bagram and Gen. Stanley McChrystal unveiled reforms for both U.S. and Afghan prisons that focus on rehabilitation and skills training aimed at preventing the radicalization of prisoners. He announced that the “desired endstate” for all detention operations — including Bagram — would be the transfer of those responsibilities to the Afghan government once it has the capacity to run these systems in accordance with international and national law.

The devil is in the details. Even under the new procedures, which are similar to the discredited combatant status review tribunals in Guantánamo, there are concerns about detainees’ ability to review and challenge the evidence against them and produce their own evidence, including witnesses, without the assistance of legal representation. Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the reforms will resolve the underlying problems of arbitrary and indefinite detention. More can be done to prevent mistaken captures, gather evidence during capture (to promote fair criminal prosecutions in Afghan courts) and increase the capacity of the Afghan authorities to take responsibility for detention and prosecution.

Sharon Kelly is the communications director of Human Rights First, whose staff contributed this grade.

Erica Gaston

Grade on Afghanistan policy: B

Afghanistan has been President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy challenge so far. With a shake-up to the U.S. civilian and military leadership, a new approach to regional security (“AfPak”), and more troops and resources, Obama gets credit for trying to overhaul a free-falling policy in Afghanistan. The administration also gets high marks for taking seriously civil society concerns about civilian casualties, detention, corruption, and governance. It’s a good start — but so far the results of this new thinking have been slow to materialize on the ground and Afghanistan appears worse by the day. While the administration cannot be blamed for the mess it inherited, it as of yet offers no real strategy for the future. For all the debates over counterinsurgency versus counterterrorism, no military strategy alone can address the fundamental political dilemmas in Afghanistan. Obama needs to offer an equally compelling, practicable, and effective civilian political strategy that addresses the concerns and costs that Afghans and Americans alike face in this situation.

Erica Gaston, a lawyer, works at the Open Society Institute.

Sarah E. Mendelson

Grade: B

Grading the administration on the anniversary of the election feels premature, like grading someone between mid-terms and finals. That said, it is worth comparing expectations with realities, especially concerning human rights. Disappointment was perhaps inevitable.

The administration’s most important contributions concerning human rights may well be closing secret prisons and ending the use of torture during the interrogation of terrorist suspects: A+ work. The overall importance of human rights, however, remains unclear. A comprehensive review, led by the White House, on the role of human rights in advancing U.S. national security and bilateral relations has not happened, nor, one suspects, ever been contemplated. Key senior positions were vacant for much of the year and, in some cases, still remain unfilled.

Walking the rights walk and talking the rights talk will go a long way to restoring America’s ability to champion human rights, but on Guantánamo and future detention policy, we can grade only on process, not outcome. The executive orders signed on Jan. 23 were bold moves, followed by lack-luster efforts; the closure almost tanked (D-) in the spring, and while the effort has recovered, danger lurks. The request to amend the Military Commissions Act was a shock. Why revert to a discredited, ineffective legal regime (so often noted by the Obama campaign) when the federal courts work, convicting 195 international terrorists since 2001? Worse yet is the possibility of institutionalizing detention without charge for some Guantánamo detainees inside the United States. The use of drone strikes with civilians as collateral damage and the continued use of Bagram to detain without charge people picked up away from the battlefield are problematic continuations of Bush administration policies. The near total disdain for accountability on torture bodes badly; cultures of unexamined impunity that emerge from legal systems cobbled together in times of crisis can become the norm rather than remain the exception.

Elsewhere, political miscalculations, such as dissing the Dalai Lama, and comments downplaying human rights in China, have been offset somewhat by the soaring language on justice and rights in every major foreign policy address the president has made overseas, and most recently, at the UN General Assembly. The thread running through the speeches — a 21st-century view of states in which rights are core to making the international system stable and secure — is tantalizing, begging to be made substantial.

We even got a feel for what it might look like woven into the administration’s relationship with Russia. I am admittedly biased, as a co-convener of the Civil Society Summit held in July in Moscow, where President Obama spoke as well as listened to and met with human rights defenders. Symbols — the tone of speeches and such meetings — do matter, but will they result in any benefits? 2009 has been a deadly year for activists and journalists in Russia as thugs try to silence those who document abuse. President Dmitri Medvedev has also met with rights defenders, and just days ago, he gave perhaps the single most important speech by a Russian official concerning the crimes of Stalin and the need to memorialize the millions of victims since Khrushchev first spoke about the terror back in 1956. What will be the Obama administration’s response? What will be the package of policies relating to rights that the Obama administration unveils to take advantage of this bold move? When is the conference that the United States, together with Europe and Russia, will convene to find a new approach to ending violence in the North Caucasus?

Such actions in Russia and similar moves elsewhere, combined with actually closing Guantánamo and accounting for our own past, could eventually earn the Obama administration an A. With too many questions unanswered and issues unresolved, the administration can’t yet score more than a B.

Sarah E. Mendelson is the director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Relations.

James Joyner

Grade: B-

President Barack Obama inherited two unpopular wars and a global financial crisis. Despite mostly continuing President George W. Bush’s policies, he’s rebooted America’s image in the world and avoided most of the landmines. His top-level foreign policy staff — from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Jim Jones to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to the State Department’s Anne-Marie Slaughter — is superb. While I seriously questioned his choice of Hillary Clinton to become secretary of state, she’s mostly been solid. That said, he’s made some serious missteps on the security front with Afghanistan and Iran, and his relationship with Europe is not nearly as strong as it should be, given the warmth with which his election was received.

Afghanistan: C-. Obama carried out his campaign pledge to send more troops and to put more emphasis on the war but he quickly lost confidence and now seems mired in a struggle over grand strategy. He fired a competent general to replace him with another, presumably to double-down on counterinsurgency, and turned around three months later to question his own general’s recommendations for carrying out the obvious implications of said strategy.

Europe: B. Obama came into office with a huge popularity boost and was viewed as a breath of fresh air after eight years of Bush. But he’s fumbled the “special relationship” with Britain and has raised serious doubts in Eastern Europe. See my recent article for a detailed explanation.

Iran: C+. Jim Jones’ pronouncement that we could live with a nuclear Iran was a welcome step down from the previous talk about it being “unacceptable.” Unfortunately, the situation has been largely bungled from there, with Obama having seemingly returned to his campaign trail Pollyannaish view of the power of chit-chat.

ames Joyner is the managing editor of the Atlantic Council and writes the blog Outside the Beltway.

Fawaz A. Gerges

Grade: B-

The greater Middle East (Palestine and Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) has presented President Barack Obama with his greatest foreign-policy challenges so far.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has won the first round. The U.S. president has failed to force Israel to agree to a complete settlement freeze and has retreated in the face of stiff opposition by the right-wing governing coalition in Jerusalem. At a joint news conference with Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised his offer to curb some settlement construction as opposed to Obama’s initial demand to freeze all construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “What the prime minister has offered in specifics on restraints on a policy of settlements…is unprecedented,” Clinton added. “I want to see both sides as soon as possible begin negotiations.”

Palestinian and Arab officials expressed deep disappointment and frustration with Clinton’s new stance and said that it undermines progress towards restarting peace talks. In one stroke, the Obama administration has inflicted considerable damage on its credibility and authority in the region. At best, its policy in this area merits an average grade of C- so far.

On Iran, despite great odds, the Obama administration has acted in a deliberate and restrained fashion, marshalling its diplomatic assets and letting the negotiation process play itself out. Although it is doubtful that Iran will ever agree to a freeze on its uranium enrichment, a deal that takes into account Tehran’s rights and obligations is feasible. What is clear is that the Obama administration has decided to exhaust all diplomatic channels before imposing new sanctions on the Iranian leadership. For his sustained efforts, Obama deserves high marks, or an A-.

In Afghanistan, Obama finds himself pressed between a rock (pressure by the U.S. security establishment to escalate militarily and to send tens of thousands of more troops to the war-torn country) and a hard place (a deteriorating political and security situation and rising Taliban). As the Graveyard of Empires, Afghanistan is a hard place to wage war or build a viable nation-state. Obama’s strategic predicament in Afghanistan is that regardless of what he does, he will likely lose. The new president has largely allowed himself to be entrapped in Afghanistan’s shifting sands. It remains to be seen if Obama will succeed in disentangling the United States from the raging civil war in Afghanistan, and preventing the costly dispute from ruining his presidency. He deserves a B-.

As a work in progress and in comparison with its predecessor, the Obama approach to the greater Middle East is above average.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of the international relations of the Middle East at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His most recent book is Journey of the Jihadist: Inside Muslim Militancy.

Shuja Nawaz

Grade: B-

President Barack Obama’s momentous election heralded a change in U.S. foreign policy and raised expectations of revolutionary developments around the globe. He certainly lifted the dialogue to a new and higher moral level and promised engagement. But progress has been evolutionary, not revolutionary, because U.S. policy is rooted in national interests that do not change dramatically with a change in the occupant of the White House. This has been difficult for people around the world to understand. Regarding the Middle East and the Muslim world in general, Obama’s rhetoric has resonated more abroad than at home. He must change the discussion at home, not just to ensure Israel’s security but also guarantee implementation of Palestinian rights within a tight time frame. On Iran and India, he missed an opportunity to give Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a larger canvas to ply his skills by handing over Iran to a separate envoy and ceding to India’s pressures to exclude that country from the important dialogue on Afghanistan. Its problems can only be solved by taking a regional approach and drawing in the major neighbors: India, Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Russia, and China. Restricting Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced his ability to move all the chess pieces in the game.

Also, in Afghanistan, there is no savvy civilian equivalent of Gen. Stanley McChrystal representing the transatlantic view and strengthening the hand of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry with his Afghan hosts. (Paging “Dr.” Ryan Crocker!) And no Afghan voice has been brought into the discussion of the Afghan strategy. There is still time to save the situation before domestic electoral agendas take over in 2010 and then again in 2011. America’s first “global president” who promised the world an impossible dream must strive to avoid settling for the politically possible. He inherited multiple chess games and is moving from crisis to crisis at home and abroad. So, how well has he done? As my high school principal in Rawalpindi, the Rev. “Paddy” Byrne, used to pronounce on most report cards: Needs Improvement. For his high aims but relatively slow results to date, one can give Obama an A for effort but only a C+ for promised actions to date. Overall score: B-. This is an interim grade. The spring semester might produce better results at home and perhaps abroad.

Shuja Nawaz is the director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council.

Chip Somodevilla/AFP/Getty Images


Geneive Abdo

Grade: C+ and declining

Having just returned from two weeks of meetings in the Middle East, I think it is clear that the rhetoric in the United States, applauding Obama’s outreach to Iran and the Muslim world, is not broadly shared by the people he is trying to impress. The Israelis think his Cairo speech is giving Iran a free pass to do whatever it pleases because Tehran does not fear a military attack from the United States. The Lebanese think the Obama administration’s reconciliation with Syria, coupled with Iran’s growing militarization, makes the Hezbollah problem more of a menace. Iran’s arms shipment to Hezbollah can only be stopped, they say, if the Syrians agree to close their borders to these shipments. But without pressure from Obama, this is unlikely to happen.

And Muslims in general are no longer impressed with the Cairo speech because they do not see any policy changes as a result of this gesture. Israel has refused to freeze settlement expansion; Obama has cut direct funding to help civil society groups in countries such as Egypt; and there is no engagement with Islamist leaders who represent the vast majority of Muslims in the Arab world.

The Obama appeal? It is fading fast.

Geneive Abdo is the editor of and the director of the Iran program at the Century Foundation.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Overall grade: C

Grading a president’s foreign policy after only nine months in office is an inherently tentative and speculative enterprise. But President Barack Obama has taken enough actions to warrant at least preliminary grades in several categories.

Iraq: a gentleman’s C. He has continued the policy of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops agreed to by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and President George W. Bush during the final months of the Bush administration. A faster withdrawal would be advisable, but at least the United States appears to be on its way out of that unnecessary and mismanaged war.

Afghanistan: F. The president was too hasty with his initial decision to send additional troops. He is now in danger of compounding that error by agreeing to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to send even more troops. The United States has drifted into an open-ended nation-building mission in an extremely unpromising arena. By escalating the U.S. commitment, Obama is moving in precisely the wrong direction.

Iran: B. Obama had the courage to reach out to Iran. Only time will tell whether his diplomatic initiatives will get positive results, but his effort to date is superior to the bankrupt policies of previous administrations. At least there are now promising talks on the thorny nuclear issue.

East Asia: C. The president has avoided doing anything rash with regard to the North Korean nuclear problem. On the other hand, he has done little to get Japan and South Korea to become more serious about their own defenses and stop free-riding on U.S. security efforts. Relations with China remain reasonably cordial, though the president’s imposition of tariff duties on Chinese tires was a needless affront.

Russia: C. Obama abandoned the unnecessary and provocative missile defense plan with Poland and the Czech Republic. However, he has not abandoned the even more unnecessary and provocative goal of expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia.

Repairing the United States’ reputation in the world: A. This least tangible, but extremely important, aspect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy might be his principal achievement.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Gianni Riotta

Grade: C

Foreign affairs: B-. The president remains great on rhetoric. He soothes the Europeans, winks at the Islamic ummah, mesmerizes the Nobel Peace Prize jurors. On AfPak and Iran, however, he is a better Hamlet than Jude Law on Broadway, still hedging his bets. The goodwill is there, but when will decisive action follow?

Economy: B-. One-third of the stimulus package is already out there. Production numbers are getting better, but how much is due to the car-scrapping plan? What if the puny recovery does not create jobs before the midterm elections? Will Mr. Prez raise taxes? A majority of voters do not think the White House is doing a good job on the economy.

Health-care reform: B. Kudos to the president for eluding the Washington quicksand where Ms. Clinton and Mr. Magaziner’s phone-book-thick reform proposal was lost 15 years ago. His approach has been steady and savvy in Congress: not LBJ efficient yet, but sound. He will have eventually to bloody the conservative lobbies and the liberal pasdaran to win the match — but so far so good.

Soul-mending: C. Obama ran on a post-20th century platform, eschewing the ideological divide of left and right. The best passages in his books are the meditations on finding common ground in a pragmatic, cooler, world. This approach has failed. The political discourse in the United States is as rabid as ever. We encourage the president to soldier on, but the results are meager.

Gianni Riotta is the editor of Il Sole 24 Ore in Milan.

Roque Planas

Grade: C

When pressed with hard questions about the past, Obama likes to respond that he prefers to look toward the future. It would be hard to tell from looking at his Cuba policy. The Obama administration spent its first two major hemispheric meetings — the Summit of the Americas in April and the Organization of American States meeting at San Pedro Sula in June — deflecting demands from most of his neighbors to end the trade embargo against Cuba and stop isolating the country diplomatically. More recently, the Obama administration shrugged off the U.N. General Assembly’s 18th vote condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which passed by a vote of 187 to 3.

The Obama administration has taken some positive steps toward improving relations with Cuba by easing travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans. Bilateral talks on migration have restarted after a five year hiatus.

But these steps are more symbolic than substantive. The trade embargo remains the key barrier to improving U.S.-Cuban relations and Obama — like the last nine U.S. presidents — continues to argue that using trade sanctions as leverage to force political change in Cuba is a winning policy. Refusing to take a more progressive stance on the unilaterally imposed embargo allows Cuba policy to be determined by the inertia of the past rather than the conditions of the present.

Roque Planas is a graduate student in journalism and Latin American studies at New York University, where he studies the future of U.S.-Cuban relations.

Philip I. Levy

Grade: C-

I base my grade on international development and trade policies. These have not been a major focus of the Obama administration, and it shows. The development critique is the easiest; the President has still not appointed anyone to run USAID. In lieu of promised reform, the development agenda is entirely adrift. In trade, the administration’s policy has mostly consisted of empty pledges to avoid protectionism and to pursue a successful conclusion to global trade talks. Instead, the President has signed off on Congressional protection (Buy American, Mexican trucks), promulgated some of his own (Chinese tires), and failed to engage seriously in WTO or FTA negotiations. It is nothing new for a president to succumb to protectionist pressure from time to time, but the absence of any positive agenda is novel. One purpose of an interim grade is to warn the recipient of trouble to come without a change of course. On the horizon in trade are serious declines in regional influence (e.g. Asia), new pressures for protection, and the potential for a major trade war over environmental tariffs.

Philip I. Levy is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Elliott Abrams

Grade: D

In April, after Obama’s first 100 days, I was the only grader who gave him a D; This time I expect to have company.

What bothered me most then was his abandonment of human rights policy and the dissidents around the world fighting cruel regimes. That unfortunately remains true, and the administration’s weak response to the struggles of the Iranian people since June is the worst — and most significant — example. The efforts to “engage” regimes such as those in Burma and Syria is both morally repellent and, thus far anyway, completely unsuccessful in producing policy changes on their part.

But we have also seen the dithering over Afghanistan by an administration either unable to make up its mind or simply lacking the toughness needed to face dangerous enemies. We have seen the costly failure of policy toward Israel and the Palestinians, where the administration has managed to weaken Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and itself by putting to Netanyahu and then necessarily abandoning impossible demands for a construction freeze in all settlements and in Jerusalem. We have seen the administration crow over “positive steps” by Putin (whom it said would back tough sanctions against Iran), the Iranian regime (which it said would export at once most of its low-enriched uranium), and others — only to watch those “gains” melt away within days.

Their greatest victory in foreign policy appears to be the campaign to reinstate a Honduran president who violated that country’s Constitution in an effort to extend his term in office and turn the place into a little Venezuela.

As I travel, I find America’s friends and allies increasingly nervous about these signs of incompetence and naiveté. The president’s U.N. General Assembly speech presented the problem: Obama positioned himself above the nation, mediating between us and the world, his job to restrain America’s ugly aggressive instincts and apologize for past crimes. No wonder friends and allies wonder where this all leads. The remaining question is whether there is a learning curve. If not, the D will next time have to be an F.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as a national security advisor in George W. Bush’s administration.

Otto J. Reich

Grade for Latin America policy: D

Based on the administration’s performance in Latin America, it deserves a D. It has disregarded our friends while overlooking our adversaries’ hostility. For example, it has done nothing to ratify the job-producing trade agreements signed with such stalwart allies as Panama and Colombia, while ignoring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s links with Iran, Syria, Russia, and other antagonistic states. It fumbled its first regional crisis (Honduras), one it helped to create by ignoring the anti-democratic machinations of pro-Chavez President Manuel Zelaya, then by promoting Zelaya’s reinstatement after he was removed by a unanimous vote of the Supreme Court, and then by outsourcing the management of this crisis to a foreign leader, Costa Rica’s Oscar Arias, who failed. The first year has brought no successes, but several impending calamities. The only reason the administration does not get an F is that it has not totally ignored U.S. relations with Mexico, the most important country for the United States in the Western Hemisphere.

Otto J. Reich was formerly U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and a senior staff member of the National Security Council.

Michael Scheuer

Grade: D

On the upside, President Barack Obama is as good as former President George W. Bush. He can claim to have achieved in one year the same thing Bush said he achieved between the September 11 attacks and November 2008: America has not been attacked at home by al Qaeda. But also, as with Bush, everything else is downside.

Obama created expectations in the Muslim world he cannot meet; witness Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reversal on Israeli settlements. As that becomes clear, our Islamist foes will gain credibility, adherents, and momentum. Obama missed leaving Iraq while the getting was good; now the surge-based respite is ending. In Afghanistan, Obama, his party, the media, and the Republicans act like elections matter — they do not in that religiously conservative, intensely tribal society — and have made reinforcing our marooned, losing army dependent on political progress that will not occur. Then, there is no reduced dependence on foreign oil; no complete securing of the former Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction arsenal; ever-increasing amounts of U.S. debt in the hands of our Chinese and Saudi enemies; no termination of our Cold War-like search for proxies to do our dirty work — witness the handling of Pakistan; and no border controls to give state and local law enforcement a fighting chance to protect Americans.

All told, Obama is proving a sweeter-tongued but still status-quo implementer of our failed bipartisan foreign policy, not recognizing genuine threats, planning on best-case scenarios, and dithering toward disaster.

Michael Scheuer served in the CIA for 22 years, including as chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit.

Hillary Mann Leverett

Grade: D

As a candidate and in his first months in the White House, President Barack Obama displayed strategic impulses that were more forward-leaning than most of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment on a number of key issues: Arab-Israeli diplomacy, the AfPak arena, and Iran. His choices for two high-level envoys — George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke — were potentially inspired. But, Obama has “choked” in the implementation of his strategic impulses.

By insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze but flinching from defining settlements themselves as illegal (as Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter did), Obama guaranteed that he would lose his initial standoff with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and fundamentally undermine his credibility to all sides. By caving to domestic and Indian pressure to exclude India from the AfPak rubric, Obama rendered his much vaunted new approach strategically useless; however Obama ultimately deals with General McChrystal’s troop request, it will not address this fundamental mistake. And, in the same way that the Reagan administration tried to find its preferred “moderate” Iranian interlocutor, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, Obama has tried to “game” Iranian politics. By ostentatiously ignoring messages sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, instead, trying to communicate directly with the supreme leader, Obama undercut perceptions in Tehran that he was serious about fundamentally redefining U.S.-Iranian relations.

All in all, I would give Obama a D on foreign policy, and — if his performance does not improve dramatically — he is headed toward failure.

Hillary Mann Leverett is the chief executive officer of Stratega, a consulting firm, and the editor of the blog

Danielle Pletka

Grade: D

It seems almost a cheap shot to give the president low marks on a foreign policy that is so obviously failing.

Some was only to be expected, like the scorn of America’s adversaries (Iran, North Korea, Venezuela) and the indifference of the autocrats the president has chosen to propitiate (Russia, China, Egypt). Other choices have been a grave disappointment, particularly Obama’s politically driven mental muddle over what he once saw as the “necessary war” in Afghanistan. In the larger sense, however, deeper impressions have emerged about the president since the beginning of the administration — suggestions of a reflexive discomfort with American power that too often seems to range Obama on the side of those hostile to America, and worse yet, against those who have always stood with us. Based on the evidence, and his almost obsessive apologia, it is hard to escape the impression that our president is not indifferent to American leadership, but rather, instinctively ill-at-ease with much that the nation has stood for since its inception, whether it is democracy (in his United Nations and Cairo speeches he explicitly downplayed the superiority of any system of government), free enterprise, or championship of liberty (viz. the people of Iran, Darfur, Honduras, Tibet). The vision of a toxic America whose allies are somehow tainted by association with us (Poland, the Czech Republic, Israel), and of adversaries whose enmity is somehow justified by past U.S. missteps, is one that threatens to embolden those who wish us the worst.

Postscript: Why only a D? The president can still do the right thing: resource the war in Afghanistan, keep his promise to lead efforts to isolate Tehran by the end of the year, and renew America’s promise to the world.

Danielle Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Annie Lowrey is assistant editor at FP.

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