Monday, January 4, 2010

Dick Cheney wrong on Barack Obama slam

Contrary to claims by Dick Cheney, Barack Obama has had a solid first year in foreign policy matters, according to Michael O'Hanlon. Photo: Reuters

Vice President Cheney has been excoriating President Obama’s foreign policy approach of late, and Republican partisans reportedly sense an opportunity to portray yet another Democratic president as supposedly weak on national security in the coming months. The last week of 2009, with an attempted plane bombing in Detroit and tragic attack against CIA operatives in Afghanistan capping off the year, helps set the context for these criticisms.

But in fact, Obama has had a solid first year in foreign policy matters. By one measure, comparison with other first-year presidents in modern history, Obama ranks with the three or four best since World War II by my estimation - and I write this as someone who opposed Obama during the Democratic primary process of 2007-2008 largely because of fears at the time that he would not be strong on national security.

To be sure, Obama’s first year accomplishments are more in the realm of creating good inputs to policy rather than achieving good outputs. Results to date have been relatively few, as would be expected of a first-year president, and as Obama himself rightly acknowledged in his December speech in Oslo accepting the Noble Peace Prize.

Indeed, that peace prize was to my mind badly premature. To his credit, Obama seemed to agree in calling his accomplishments to date “slight” by comparison with other prize winners. The speech itself was good, as were Obama’s addresses in Prague in April over the future of nuclear weapons and in Cairo in June about U.S. relations with the Islamic world. But these remarks were more solid, smart, and reasonable than transformational or historic; my solid assessment of his first year in office is not based on his words, or vision of hope and change, so much as sound policy decisions.

As everything about recent events has underscored, the United States still has literally a world of problems to address, few of them substantially mitigated over the course of 2009. But on balance things Obama has gotten a few major matters moving in better directions, limited the damage or found the least-bad policy when faced with a menu of bad choices on other matters, and set the stage for possible future progress elsewhere.

First-year presidents do not tend to perform well on the foreign policy front. Some did have good years, of course. George H. W. Bush may be the best example, with progress towards German reunification, major developments in ending of the Cold War, and the successful invasion of Panama to show for 1989. Ronald Reagan accelerated the post-Vietnam U.S. defense buildup dramatically in his first year in office. Eisenhower helped end the Korean War. George W. Bush responded reasonably successfully to 9/11, though his disdain for ongoing negotiations with the likes of North Korea as well as Palestinian and Israeli interlocutors tainted the year’s accomplishments, and of course bin Laden got away in the mountains of Tora Bora at the end of 2001.

Most Democratic presidents had big problems. Kennedy dealt with the Bay of Pigs. Johnson starting falling down the slippery slopes of Southeast Asia in a way that set the stage for full-scale American combat involvement in Vietnam in 1965. Carter struggled with his effort to balance human rights and national security interests in 1977; Clinton struggled with Somalia and Haiti and Bosnia in 1993. And of course Republicans had their issues too; it would be hard to call 1969 a particularly impressive year for Richard Nixon, in light of the escalations Nixon set in motion in Vietnam.

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