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Word Is Bond

Has President Obama kept Candidate Obama's campaign promises?

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Getty Images
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Four years ago last week, then-Senator Barack Obama delivered what is known in campaign parlance as the "big foreign policy speech." It’s the sort of address that is a rite of passage for a presidential contender — an opportunity to demonstrate to voters (and even more so reporters) that the candidate is fully prepared for the awesome responsibilities of U.S. global leadership.

Given at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C., Obama used the address as an opportunity to lay out his major foreign policy and national security strategy while also differentiating himself from both his opponent Sen. John McCain and the President George W. Bush’s deeply unpopular foreign policy.

Like any major campaign speech, Obama’s remarks were more than just a vision of the future, they also represented a promise of what his presidency would bring to the country. So, four years later, it’s worth asking the question: Has Obama upheld his foreign policy and national security promises?

While every candidate makes a host of pledges, declarations, and assurances on the campaign trail, for the purpose of simplicity and brevity, the Reagan Building speech provides a good template of Obama’s campaign 2008 message and what he said he would do as president.  For example, while Politifact has helpfully pointed out that Obama broke his promise to "seek to negotiate a political agreement on Cyprus," we here at Foreign Policy are not going to make this into a federal issue (of course Cypriot-American voters may have a different perspective on this). Let’s focus on the big stuff.

Here’s what Obama said in his Reagan Building speech: "I will focus this [national security] strategy on five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

These five goals formed the outline of his foreign policy pitch to voters. So how has he done?

Iraq: No foreign policy promise was more essential to Obama’s campaign appeal than his call to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Indeed, his early opposition to the war is a not insignificant reason why he won the Democratic nomination for president over Hillary Clinton, who supported Bush’s Iraq invasion. On this count, then, mission accomplished, for real: all U.S. troops departed from Iraq at the end of 2011. In addition, Obama, for the most part, abided by his statement in the Reagan Building speech that, "True success will take place when we leave Iraq to a government that is taking responsibility for its future — a government that prevents sectarian conflict, and ensures that the al Qaeda threat which has been beaten back by our troops does not reemerge."

There is one important caveat here. As president, Obama was largely implementing a strategy agreed to by his predecessor. The status of forces agreement (SOFA) that Bush signed with the Iraqi government (after, to be fair, Obama’s speech was delivered) legally bound the United States to remove all of its troops by the end of 2011. Nonetheless, Obama adhered to this agreement; resisted calls from his own military and Republican to re-negotiate the SOFA and stay beyond that date; and laid out a clear timetable for U.S. withdrawal.  Promise kept — though Obama had less control over the matter than his campaign.

Afghanistan/al Qaeda: The yin to Obama’s Iraqi yang was always Afghanistan and the fight against al Qaeda. As he frequently did on the campaign trail in 2008, in his speech at the Reagan building, Obama emphatically made clear his inclination to shift the fight from Iraq to the Hindu Kush. "As President," Obama said then, "I will make the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be." He pledged to send more troops to Afghanistan and also called for bolstering America’s non-military assistance to Afghanistan.

In fact, his words back then were eerily prescient, "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region. And we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." In regard to Pakistan, Obama pledged "to strengthen stability by standing up for the aspirations of the Pakistani people" and called for increasing "non-military aid to the Pakistani people" and moving beyond a "military alliance."

So how’d he do? Troop increase to Afghanistan: check.  Increased non-military assistance to both Afghanistan and Pakistan: check. Channeling aid to Pakistan away from the military and toward the "people": check. More drones and a dead Osama bin Laden: check.

But that only tells half the story.

While Obama did say in July 2008 that he would send two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan he of course went above and beyond that as President and sent an additional 30,000 troops in December 2009. Moreover, while he was true to his strategy of bolstering aid to the Afghan economy and more directly to the Pakistani people — things haven’t quite turned out the way that Obama rosily predicted. Afghanistan’s future is murky at best: the Karzai government is hardly an effective partner of the United States, the Afghan military is still struggling to take over security responsibilities, and relations with Pakistan (and views of the United States in general) are at possibly their lowest point since September 11, 2001. So while promises might have been kept it hasn’t necessarily added up to a smart policy.

Moreover, while Obama pledged to focus on the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan in prosecuting the war on terror aggressively expanding the war to Yemen and Somalia, increasing the use of drones and creating a "kill list" that included an American citizen certainly wasn’t part of his campaign rhetoric. As for his past statements about avoiding "stupid wars" and "changing the mindset" of American foreign policy, it’s pretty hard to give Obama anything but a failing grade.

Still as promises go Obama stuck to his guns … unfortunately.

Nuclear Proliferation: Four years ago, Obama promised to seek "a world with no nuclear weapons" and also to work with Russia in reducing both countries’ nuclear weapons stockpiles. In fact, candidate Obama adopted a surprisingly fulsome non-proliferation agenda. Not only has he kept his promises, but the policy has been surprisingly successful.

He negotiated the New START treaty with Russia and got it ratified in the Senate. On loose nukes, he received pledges from four dozen countries to secure loose nuclear material within four years. Since then, participants in the plans have fulfilled more than 70 percent of the commitments that were made at a Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington in April 2010. And a year earlier in Prague he pledged the United States to a goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Finally, on the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Obama said in the Reagan Building speech he would "use all elements of American power to pressure the Iranian regime, starting with aggressive, principled and direct diplomacy — diplomacy backed with strong sanctions and without preconditions."  This is almost to a word what the Obama administration has done on Iran (though unmentioned is his covert use of cyber-technology to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions). While some will argue that Obama was naïve to give diplomacy a chance with Iran it likely strengthened his hand in building international support for sanctions against Tehran and a strategy of increasing diplomatic isolation.

Nonetheless, Obama has fairly clearly fulfilled pretty much all of his promises in nuclear proliferation (even though he has not yet achieved a nuclear-free world) and in fact done more than perhaps any president since Ronald Reagan to limit the world’s most dangerous weapons.

Energy Security: At first glance, Obama’s record on "achieving true energy security" doesn’t look so hot. The most glaring failure is his inability to get a cap and trade bill through Congress and do much of anything on climate change. At the very least Obama has hardly talked a big game on the need to deal with global warming (although he’s offered hints that this will be on the top of his agenda in a second term). But on deeper inspection, Obama’s record stands up to scrutiny.

For example, I asked Michael Grunwald, a correspondent at Time magazine and author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, which looks at the impact of the president’s stimulus bill, for his take on Obama’s green energy record. He said to me that "during the campaign, everyone said Obama was pandering to the greens by promising to spend $150 billion on clean energy over 10 years. And then he got three-fifths of the way there during his first month." In fact, the stimulus bill, which passed in the first weeks of his administration poured $90 billion into clean initiatives, and leveraged another $100 billion in private finance. The result, in part, is a jump in use of renewable energy sources. In fact, according to David Roberts at the Grist, an environmental website, "installed wind and solar have doubled in the U.S. since Obama took office."  There have also been a ratcheting up of CAFE standards for automobile manufacturers and greater government subsidies to encourage energy efficiency.

While it did little to make greens happy, Obama also allowed for expanded off-shore drilling among other steps to increase domestic energy production.  While these developments will seem little comfort when one considers that much of the country is experiencing drought conditions and the global warming continues its inexorable advance, credit must be given where credit is due. While the United States still relies on foreign oil, the trend is moving in a very different direction than it was just a few years ago. By one estimate, the United States will cut in half its reliance on Middle Eastern oil by 2020 and realistically could end it altogether by 2035. Now to be fair, all of the credit for these advances cannot be given completely to Obama — many of them began before he took office. Still, his policies have not stood in the way, and if anything have sped them along.

All in all, while Obama has not completely upheld his campaign promises on energy policy — he’s come a lot closer than likely anyone would have expected.

Rebuilding alliances: In Obama’s Reagan Building speech he called for a comprehensive diplomatic initiative to foster a "new era of international cooperation" and strengthen relationships with key allies. The tale is mixed, but there’s more good than bad.  Relations with key allies in Europe and Asia have certainly improved, although Obama’s pledge that he would "strengthen NATO by asking more of our allies" hasn’t exactly worked out (not that anyone should be surprised).  Mitt Romney’s declaration that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical foe, notwithstanding, relations between the two former enemies, while hardly cheery, are certainly better.  To be sure, simply not being George W. Bush has gone a long way toward fulfilling Obama’s pledge to rebuild America’s overseas alliances; and at the same time there has been little re-examination in Washington of these relationships and whether they are still furthering U.S. interests. Still, promises are promises.

At the United Nations, the U.S. hasn’t done much to push for Security Council reform, but as Mark Goldberg, the managing editor of U.N. Dispatch, a blog on global issues, said, if the proper criteria for judging Obama is "working within the U.N. system to produce outcomes that advance American interests and promote our values then its fair to say that tremendous efforts have been expended at the U.N." and credit is due.

As for Obama’s pledge to "deepen our engagement to help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict" the less said about this — and the unwillingness of the Obama White House much of any political capital to achieve this goal — the better. In addition, his call for doubling foreign assistance hasn’t come close to being realized; neither has his pledge to make the case to the American people for more money for development assistance — though in fairness Republicans in Congress have had something to do with this failure.

Still for the most part, this like Obama’s other promises have been kept. Now none of this should lead to the conclusion that simply adhering to campaign pledges means that Obama has been a successful foreign policy president. This is especially true when one considers that any commander-in-chief will be judged, rightly, by how they respond to global events that emerge during their presidency.

For example, when Libya exploded into a full-scale civil war — and potential humanitarian disaster — Obama worked to assemble a global coalition and received the imprimatur of the United Nations. This was broadly consistent with his campaign pledge to foster a new era of global cooperation. At the same time, he largely ignored the role of Congress and undermined the War Powers Resolution — something he had pledged not to do in his earliest days as a presidential candidate.

To the latter point, Obama’s record on civil liberties and the so-called "secret war" while occasionally violating the letter of his campaign promises (particularly in relation to Gitmo and detention policy) has been less than solicitous to the spirit of his 2008 campaign.

So in the end, Obama has largely stuck by his campaign promises on foreign policy and national security. Whether that means he’s been a good foreign policy president — and whether it merits re-election — will be up to voters to decide come November.

Michael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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