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Obama's First Year: 'Great Expectations,' 'Daunting Realities'

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 30, 2009

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An expert on politics and foreign policy, CFR Director of Studies James M. Lindsay summarizes President Barack Obama's first year in office as "great expectations running smack into daunting realities." He says Obama came into office with expectations so high that people in the United States and abroad were led "to hope that Barack Obama would have the key to solving what, in reality, is a long list of very difficult, perhaps intractable problems." Lindsay says Obama was surprised that his initial infusion of troops to Afghanistan did not produce important results, and he has since scaled back his goals. Iran's apparent march toward nuclear weapons capability poses an increasingly difficult set of policy choices for the president. Meanwhile, Lindsay says, "Getting U.S.-Chinese relations right is going to be one of the biggest challenges President Obama faces."

President Obama is nearing completion of his first year in office. How would you summarize his accomplishments in the foreign policy field?

I would summarize President Obama's first year in office as follows: Great expectations running smack into daunting realities; realities are winning.

Were the expectations caused by the public's disillusion with President George W. Bush and the feeling that Obama would accomplish more?

The great expectations are really a testament to President Obama's skills as a politician and to his own biography and to the failures of the Bush administration. Those three things came together and led many Americans and many people outside of the United States to hope that Barack Obama would have the key to solving what, in reality, is a long list of very difficult, perhaps intractable problems.

And do you think that's what led the Nobel Committee to award him a prize when even he had to admit he had not achieved any significant results in foreign affairs?

[W]hat we’ve seen over the second half of 2009 is the president scaling back the nature of [U.S.] goals in Afghanistan to something more achievable. [The United States has] gone from defeating the Taliban to degrading their capabilities.

Certainly the decision by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee was an award based on potential and in some ways a backhanded slap at President George W. Bush, whose policies the members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee really disliked. The sad thing for President Obama is that winning the award actually made his job of accomplishing his goals in foreign policy harder because it led to the inevitable questions, not just by Americans but by people outside the United States, as to what he has actually done to deserve the award. The president, to his credit, did not dodge the issue in his Nobel speech. He confronted it head on and talked about the award as recognition of what people hope that he can accomplish and his commitment to living up to the goals of the Nobel Peace Prize.

I was struck by how, in his first weeks in office, President Obama was appointing special envoys to many of the tough areas. He picked former Senator George J. Mitchell to work on Israeli-Palestinian issues. After a year of shuttling back and forth to the Middle East, Mitchell must feel enormously frustrated.

That decision to appoint envoys and to tackle some of the toughest issues in American foreign policy early on stemmed directly from how the president campaigned during the election. What candidate Obama argued was that [the United States] had to put diplomacy at the forefront of American foreign policy, and so when he became president, one of the first things he did was to take some tangible steps to show that he intended to use diplomacy to advance American foreign policy interests. It was never lost on the president, however, that diplomacy never was, and never will be, a magic solution for the troubles [the United States] faces. What many people missed in many of Barack Obama's campaign speeches is that when he talked about diplomacy, he did not offer it up as a magic bullet, and he often acknowledged how difficult the challenges are facing the United States. And what Senator Mitchell has discovered first hand is, in fact, the difficulty of moving forward.

In his campaign speeches, Obama always said that Afghanistan was more important than Iraq. As president, he called it in August a "war of necessity," and then after a long period of study, he decided to increase the troop level there by thirty thousand. At the same time, he announced July 2011 as the date for beginning the withdrawal. How important is Afghanistan to his administration?

Let me just make a brief remark about Iraq first then talk about Afghanistan. The fact that Iraq is not on the front page of the newspapers is actually good news. There are a lot of problems in Iraq. Iraq is still not out of the woods, but the news coming out of Iraq is reasonably good and provides some reason for optimism that [the United States] will, in fact, be able to withdraw U.S. combat troops over the president's proposed nineteen-month time horizon. On Afghanistan, you are right. Candidate Obama often pointed toward Afghanistan as the war [the United States] should have been fighting, rather than fighting the war in Iraq. He made producing forward momentum in Afghanistan a priority early on.

[S]o far the United States has not found that talking tough or talking sweetly moves the government of Iran, which is why over the next twelve months Iran is likely to be a major headache for President Obama.

He announced early this year he was sending twenty-one thousand more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Having done that, the president's expectation in the spring of 2009 was that he had turned the corner in Afghanistan, which is why when General [Stanley] McChrystal [commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan] did his review in the summer of 2009 and came back and said, "We're in deep trouble in Afghanistan," the president and much of the White House staff were caught by surprise. And what we've seen over the second half of 2009 is the president scaling back the nature of [U.S.] goals in Afghanistan to something more achievable. [The United States has] gone from defeating the Taliban to degrading their capabilities. And the result of the very deliberate decision-making process in the fall of 2009 was to come up with a series of achievable goals and a workable strategy for reaching them.

And the United States is kind of stuck with the fact that there is a president in Afghanistan who most officials in this country think isn't very capable and is open to corruption. This of course diminishes the support for Afghanistan in Washington, I suppose.

That's the dilemma that you face in every kind of insurgency situation. If the government were popular, effective, and efficient, you, in all likelihood, wouldn't have an insurgency. So the challenge for the United States is not simply a military challenge of degrading Taliban capabilities, but of working to improve the ability and efficiency of Afghanistan's political institutions, and that is an extraordinarily tall order. That's why I wouldn't be surprised if over the next eighteen months, the military is able to turn the tide in the battle against the Taliban, but unless there is some dramatic improvement in Kabul, [the United States] will be in a position in which it's not clear that the Afghan government can survive on its own.

Obama came into the office on a pledge of trying to seek a dialogue with the Iranians. He went to extraordinary lengths, sending private messages to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and speaking publicly to the Iranian people on their new year. But so far, he doesn't seem to have to gotten much in return. The United States is routinely scorned by the Iranian leadership.

President Obama sought to engage Iran's government, as you suggest. The answer hasn't been the one he'd hoped for. This has created a problem for Barack Obama back in the United States. It raises serious questions about his entire strategy of engagement, and certainly his domestic political opponents have seized on it to argue that he hasn't been tough enough in dealing with the Iranians. But the broader issue here is that, so far, the United States has not found that talking tough or talking sweetly moves the government of Iran, which is why over the next twelve months Iran is likely to be a major headache for President Obama.

With each passing month, Iran gets closer to a potential nuclear capability. No one regards that as a good thing for the Middle East, and the question that is going to face the president and his advisers is what you do about it. Do you launch a military strike with all of the attendant risks and dangers to American forces in the region? Do you give a green light to the Israelis to make an attack with all of the risks in that strategy? Do you step back from your rhetoric and say, "OK, now we're going to try and contain Iran," with all the risk attendant to allowing Iran to go nuclear when you said you would not let that happen? It's going to be a very difficult series of policy choices for President Obama to work through.

Do you think it is still possible the Iranians might try to strike a deal before Obama's year-end deadline hits?

The reality is that the government in Tehran had been willing to make concessions, and then it yanked those concessions back. I would expect that if the Obama administration is successful in getting the Russians and Chinese to impose more significant sanctions on Tehran--that's a big "if"--we will see Tehran at least make some gestures to indicate a willingness to work out a deal. That's not the same thing as striking a deal. What complicates all of this is that from the best we can tell, there is significant jockeying for power within Iran. Different factions are trying to establish their control, and all of the members of the ruling coalition feel greatly threatened by the rise of the opposition in the wake of the disputed June elections. That mix makes it very difficult for engagement strategy to work, in part because back in Tehran, people you're hoping might be willing to stick their necks out to do a deal are worried about what's going to happen if they do. And so the political dynamics in Tehran right now don't seem to favor major diplomatic breakthroughs.

I was looking at an essay by Aaron David Miller, who said that Obama's kind of like a Gulliver who's pinned down by all these little countries that make it almost impossible to achieve anything. Do you like that analogy?

[The United States] wants China to change its behavior on currency; we also want China to do a bunch of other things for us, and we’re going to be sending mixed messages.

It's not an analogy I would use. It's not the president who's tied down. It's the reality of the situation that the United States faces. The United States has tremendous unrivaled military power, but as we saw in Iraq, having unrivaled military power doesn't solve all of your problems. And again, if you look at the Bush administration, which no one doubted was willing to exercise America's military might, it was not able to solve these problems. In part, this is because in dealing with regimes like North Korea or Iran you have to have, or be able to create, a set of pressures--either externally or internally--that leads them to want to compromise. So far, in Tehran, they don't see it in their interest to compromise or strike a deal, and successive American presidents, Democratic and Republican, have been seeking to pull the levers of power to make that happen. The problem doesn't adhere to a particular president, it's in the nature of the situation.

We haven't talked about Obama's relations with China. When he was in China in November, the Chinese in effect "muzzled" him by not allowing him to speak to the Chinese people, and by not allowing questions at his brief news conference at the end of the trip. And even though China and United States are major trade partners, there were considerable disagreements in Copenhagen at the recent climate control conference.

Getting U.S.-Chinese relations right is going to be one of the biggest challenges President Obama faces. The president and his advisers clearly understand that on most of the issues the United States cares about--Iran, climate change, trade, international finance--China is going to be a major player. The question is, "How do you get the Chinese to cooperate?" Obviously, on the economic front, there are a number of very troubling signs of the Chinese playing the role of the spoiler, of free riding on the system to extract benefits for themselves. As long as the U.S. economy has a high unemployment rate, there is going to be growing pressure on the Obama White House to do something about China's trade policies and, even more importantly, China's currency policies. China currently fixes its currency to the dollar, rather than letting it float. This has had the effect of making Chinese goods cheaper than they should be, which helps Chinese exports, but is doing great damage to many of the economies in Southeast Asia.

The real pressure, going forward in the Obama administration, is to push the Chinese to change their policies. That's going to be difficult to do because there's actually a battle within Beijing about what China's economic policy should be, how much it should rely on export-led growth versus domestic demand. [The United States] wants China to change its behavior on currency; we also want China to do a bunch of other things for us, and we're going to be sending mixed messages.

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