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Assessing Obama's Foreign Policy at Midterm

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
December 23, 2010

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President Barack Obama's first two years in office have been characterized by a mixture of foreign policy successes and failures, says James M. Lindsay, director of studies at CFR, as well as by a shift in the public's interest away from foreign affairs as unemployment has taken over as a major concern. Among Obama's successes, Lindsay includes softening the tone of U.S. foreign policy, keeping his campaign pledge to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, and getting support for tougher sanctions on Iran. But Lindsay also notes a number of shortcomings: the decision early on to over-emphasize working with the Chinese, a miscalculation in calling for a total freeze on Israeli settlements that has contributed to the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian talks, and the fragility of progress in Afghanistan. The greatest problem, says Lindsay, has been the administration's inability to restore "fiscal stability," which is "crucial to the long-term health of American power around the world. It is very hard to sustain a role of global power when you are gushing red ink."

How would you summarize President Obama's accomplishments and/or failures over the past two years?

President Obama has had a mixed record on foreign policy over his first two years in office. He's had some successes. He's had more than a few failures. But not all of the failures can be solely laid at his feet.

What would you say are the president's principal achievements?

I would highlight three successes. First, he did change the tone of American foreign policy, both by his very election but also by speeches he gave early on. That change has had some benefits. Second, he kept his promise on Iraq to reduce U.S. combat troops. We're now on schedule to have all U.S. troops leave Iraq [by the end of 2011]. Third, President Obama has gotten the support of the other great powers for tougher sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions have had much more bite on the Iranian economy than anyone expected. And he was able to get sanctions on Iran expanded in part because he changed the tone of the debate, and made it less about American mistakes, and more about Iranian behavior.

The setbacks or the failures would have to include some of the big foreign policy initiatives, like the Middle East?

I would offer five areas where the president hasn't had success. One, the president and his administration probably put too much emphasis on working with the Chinese. They were very solicitous of Beijing. They were hoping Beijing would respond in kind. That didn't happen, and what we've witnessed in the last six months or so is the administration undergoing a bit of a course correction on China.

Second, the administration mishandled the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The demand for a complete and total moratorium on housing settlements in the West Bank was a bridge too far. The administration in the last month recognized that mistake, threw in the towel, and is now trying to rethink its strategy.

Third, the president's gotten deeper into Afghanistan. The surge has produced some military successes, but as the recent strategy review points out , it is fragile progress. I would put the emphasis on the "fragile" part. And we're not seeing the sort of progress on the civilian side that you need. We're running the risk of expending more blood and treasure in Afghanistan and not being in a position to have anyone to hand over authority and power.

They were very solicitous of Beijing. They were hoping Beijing would respond in kind. That didn't happen, and what we've witnessed in the last six months or so is the administration undergoing a bit of a course correction on China.

Fourth, the president has largely ignored trade as an issue. That's an issue that has led the United States to sort of fall further behind, particularly in East Asia, on trade issues. Trade may be an issue the administration is going to move up in 2011, but certainly the president hasn't built the political basis for moving forward on trade.

The fifth failure--and I would put this as a long-term failure--is about restoring America to fiscal stability. The American economy [and] American fiscal well-being are crucial to the long-term health of American power around the world. It is very hard to sustain a role of global power when you are gushing red ink. And the president has yet to really come to grips with that problem.

Well, he has negotiated finally to close the trade deal with South Korea, right?

They have negotiated some revisions now, to an agreement originally reached three years ago when President Bush was in the White House. Now you get the hard part of actually getting congressional approval for that.

What about relations with Russia? The president and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev did sign a New START treaty in April. What are the pros and cons of getting this treaty ratified?

The Senate's vote to approve the resolution of ratification for New START is a political victory for President Obama. In many ways, that political victory outshines the treaty's rather modest provisions. It requires small reductions in the overall number of long-range nuclear weapons the United States and Russia have. It also reinstates various verification requirements that had previously existed under the so-called START regime. The White House had hoped that ratification of New START would open the door to a new and more ambitious round of nuclear weapons reductions that would include substantial cuts in tactical nuclear weapons. The resistance that Senate Republicans put up to New START, though, suggests we are not going to see movement on a new round of arms control any time soon.

Republicans seem to want to put much more emphasis on nuclear defense, something that is only touched upon in the preamble of the treaty?

Yes, the Republicans historically have argued in favor of missile defense. That support predates Ronald Reagan's famous Star Wars speech of 1983 and goes back to the missile defense debates of the 1960s. Opponents of New START argued that the treaty's preamble potentially constrains the American ability to build missile defenses. As a factual matter, it doesn't. First, the language in the preamble is not binding. Second, the preamble's reference to missile defense merely states a fact, which is that missile defenses and offensive nuclear arms are interrelated; their relative numbers and abilities affect nuclear stability.

Soon after the administration took office in 2009, Vice President Joseph Biden made his famous speech in Munich saying we wanted to "reset relations" with Russia. Are relations with Russia much better now, or should the administration be tougher, as some people suggest?

The administration has made progress in improving relations with Russia. And the administration would probably hold up as evidence of a reset not the new START treaty as much as the latest round of UN sanctions on Iran. Moscow's support was critical to that decision. That said, it's very easy to overstate how much U.S.-Russia relations have improved. The various cables leaked in the WikiLeaks fiasco show that a number of American officials, both inside and outside the State Department, are deeply skeptical about the direction of the Russian government. However, and this is important to emphasize: the president has to operate in the world as it is, not in the world as he wishes it would be. Quite clearly, there are many issues that matter to the United States, on which the administration needs Russia's cooperation. Beating the drum on Moscow's failing is not likely to generate that cooperation.

Soon after taking office, Obama sent an unusual New Year's† message publicly to the Iranian people as well as to Iran's leaders. He didn't get much of a response. Now we're in the midst of another round of discussions on Iran's nuclear program which are supposed to resume again at the end of January in Turkey. Are the Iranians finally ready to make a deal, or are they going to just stand firm in refusing to make any concessions on their nuclear program?

TIt is very hard to sustain a role of global power when you are gushing red ink. And the president has yet to really come to grips with that problem.

There's an old saying: The first time it happens it's an accident. The second time it's a trend. The third time it's a pattern. I would suspect that we have seen a pattern in Iranian behavior, which is to hint at making a concession and decline to provide one. So I'm skeptical that we're going to see a major breakthrough in the negotiations. And certainly the administration hasn't given any indication that it believes that the government in Tehran has had a change of mind on the nuclear front. As a practical diplomatic matter, the administration, in order to preserve its international coalition, has to take any Iranian offer to sit down and talk seriously, and see what, if anything, it can produce.

Former Senator George J. Mitchell, the special negotiator, has spent some two years shuttling back and forth to the Middle East without having much to show for it. Was the administration too ambitious in setting out to try to settle this longstanding problem?

The administration was probably both too ambitious in what it sought to do, and not sufficiently skeptical about the strategies employed, or sought to employ to accomplish its ends. The first thing is that the United States is enormously powerful. It's enormously influential, but its ability to command others to behave is fairly limited. It's not at all clear that the conditions were ripe in Israel and in the West Bank or among Palestinians for a resolution of the crisis. At the same time, the administration drew a line in the sand with respect to Israeli settlements that it turned out the administration could not enforce. And once it became clear that the administration could not make this line in the sand stick, its policy began to unwind.

Public attention has seemed so focused on domestic politics and the economy that foreign policy got really almost shorter shrift than it's gotten in years. Is this a permanent trend?

You're right that foreign policy is way down the list of priorities of the American public. We see that in all the polls. It is not surprising the public is not worried about, or as worried, about foreign affairs as it is about domestic affairs because right now unemployment is at about 10 percent. It's even higher if you take into account people who've given up searching for a job. People are skeptical that the Republicans and the Democrats have an ability to work together to find solutions to get the economy going again. People look out and sensibly say that there are these new emerging economic powers like China, like India, that are proving to be a real tough match for us in terms of economic competition. So, generally speaking, when people are worried about things very close to home, they don't spend a lot of time worrying about problems very far away.

How would that change? If events overseas force people to rethink what they're worried about or events here at home improve so much that people now start to look elsewhere for things that worry them.

Given that we're spending so much money in Afghanistan, many people are calling for a reduction in our presence, including the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard† Haass, who wrote an essay in the Wall Street Journal, saying we should turn the surge backwards. We know from polling that Afghanistan's not a popular war. Is this going to be a tough issue for the administration going ahead?

No. First, Richard wrote an excellent essay in the Wall Street Journal. I refer you to it, because whether or not you agree with the answer he gives, he asks the right question: Most notably, the notion that you can't look at Afghanistan in a vacuum. You have to look at Afghanistan versus all the other things you're trying to do, and assess the tradeoffs that come with it. But moving beyond that, Afghanistan is not likely to become a political issue here at home because--- to go back to an earlier question you raised---the public is not focused on events overseas. And while the public is not enamored with Afghanistan policy right now, it is not particularly passionate in its opposition.

Looking at the politics going forward--and on January 5 Republicans take control of the House of Representatives--Republicans tend to be much more supportive of Afghanistan. So the president is going to find that to the extent that he wants to keep troops in Afghanistan, he will find substantial support, at least on the House side of Capitol Hill.

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