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Obama's First 100 Days

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
April 29, 2009


Ah, the 100 Days mark. What a hoary journalistic convention. But I'll play along. How does President Obama look at the end of those 100 days? On domestic policy he's as liberal as McCain's supporters (and advisers) expected. With his trillions of dollars of spending, micromanagement of private industry, calls for tax hikes, and attempts to nationalize health care, Obama is shaping up as the most left-wing president since Lyndon Johnson. He makes Franklin Roosevelt look pretty conservative by contrast. (I actually do think FDR was pretty conservative - an argument advanced convincingly in Conrad Black's biography.)

On foreign policy it's a different story. Most of Obama's changes to the Bush foreign policy have been rhetorical more than substantive. There is no more "war on terror"; it's been replaced by "global contingency operations." Terrorist acts are also passe - now we are supposed to speak of "man-caused disasters." "Enemy combatants," likewise are a thing of the past, although the new nomenclature has yet to be announced. (I liked the Weekly Standard's suggestion that we call them "undocumented outdoorsmen.") But for all the hype, the U.S. is still continuing to do pretty much the same things to battle terrorists that we were doing under the Bush administration. We're still incarcerating three times as many detainees without trial at the Bagram detention facility in Afghanistan as we were at Guantanamo Bay. We've even increased the number of Predator strikes against al Qaeda and related groups in Pakistan; their leaders are routinely being given a death sentence with no possibility of legal appeal.

The biggest substantive changes that Obama has made--announcing the eventual closing of Gitmo and the discontinuation of stress techniques (aka "torture")--would have been made by a President McCain too. Indeed, the use of waterboarding and the like was effectively discontinued even by the Bush administration. Obama has gone further than he should to disassociate himself with those techniques; the release of the "torture memos" in particular was a mistake because it revealed important interrogation techniques to our enemies and dispirits the front-line fighters of the CIA and other intelligence agencies. But all indications are that Obama isn't actually interested in "truth commissions" or prosecutions of Bush officials, which would be a disaster of the first chop.

The theme of continuity is evident in a host of other issues from NAFTA (no, Obama isn't going to renegotiate this landmark accord) to Iraq (no, he isn't going to pull our troops out willy-nilly at the rate of two brigades a month) and Afghanistan (no, he's isn't going to downsize our war effort - he's actually expanding it). Most of his changes are at the  margin - for instance, trying to engage Iran at a slightly higher level than Bush did, or sending more aid to Pakistan, or slightly relaxing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

It is, of course, premature to conclude that Obama's foreign policy is essentially the third term of the Bush administration. There could be big discontinuities later on; they just haven't appeared yet. That hasn't been obvious because of Obama's symbolic moves such as apologizing for alleged American misdeeds and shaking hands with Hugo Chavez. I don't mean to suggest that symbolism isn't important. It is. But substance is even more important, and on that score I think Obama deserves a solid passing grade on foreign policy for his first 100 Days.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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