BIGGEST TACTICAL BLUNDER: Pushing the Israeli-Arab peace process too hard. Obama took office looking for bold strokes at a time when peace seemed as far away as ever: Israel had just finished its punishing military campaign in Gaza last winter, and the Arab world was inflamed, and deeply uninterested in making offerings to Israel. Obama's squeeze on Israeli settlements, meanwhile, managed to a) tick off a backlash in Israel that enabled the Netanyahu government to stand its ground, without b) shaking loose meaningful Arab support. For 2010, more incremental steps are in order.
BIGGEST STRATEGIC BLUNDER: Promising to close Guantanamo Bay within a year. Obama’s mere declaration of intent to close Gitmo probably earned the U.S. some short-term goodwill around the world. But it was a foolhardy promise, requiring a degree of cooperation from Congress and allied countries that Obama should have known he couldn't expect. Now it looks as thought the camp may not close before 2011, by which time that initial goodwill surely will have expired.
BIGGEST TACTICAL SUCCESS: Demonstrating that Iran isn’t acting in good faith. The Bush administration failed to win tougher international sanctions against Iran in part because people understandably doubted that Bush was making a good-faith effort to negotiate with Iran. The same can’t be said of Obama, who has thrown the intransigence of the Khameinei-Ahmadinejad regime into clear relief.
BIGGEST STRATEGIC SUCCESS: Resetting With Russia. Yes, it remains to be seen whether the Russians are simply playing Obama. But there’s ample evidence to suggest that a new effort to thaw relations may be bringing Moscow around on Obama’s top priority—squeezing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The test will come at the U.N.
MOST UNSUNG MILITARY SUCCESS: The drone campaign against radical Islamists in Pakistan. Yes, it is of dubious legality, creates anti-American backlash, and can involve the deaths of innocents. But it’s highly likely that the accelerated campaign of drone strikes Obama has overseen is making America safer and our job in Afghanistan easier.
BEST SPEECH: Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize. Some of Obama’s supporters in 2008 may have believed that their candidate would usher in a glorious new era of peace and harmony. Obama’s Oslo speech, with its eloquent explanation of his decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan and of just war theory more generally, was a responsible and realistic answer to those fantasies.
BEST LUCK: Iraq. Obama’s presidency has been about managing crises. But one very frightening dog has yet to bark. Despite al Qaeda in Mesopotamia’s best efforts to reignite sectarian violence through spectacular bombings, Iraq has remained fairly stable. That means Obama doesn’t have to second-guess his plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from the country in the coming months. But don’t exhale yet: National elections in March and simmering tension between Arabs and Kurds could turn things ugly again.
BEST LUCK II: Catching Zazi. Perhaps this wasn’t luck so much as crack law enforcement and intelligence work. But Obama is mighty fortunate that alleged would-be peroxide bomber Najibullah Zazi was apprehended in New York City before he was able to set off any of his bombs. Although the question does remain: Where are his reported domestic accomplices?
LEAST PROGRESS: North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom shows no signs of basic sanity, not to mention any willingness to abandon its nuclear program. A visit from Bill Clinton and a personal letter from Obama to Kim Jong Il have had no demonstrable effect, beyond inflating the ego of the North Korean leader.
BIGGEST SELL-OUT: Obama’s refusal to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. Few Americans care about this issue, but Obama and his aides made explicit, even impassioned, pledges during the 2008 campaign that he would do so. Realpolitik won out in the form of appeasing Turkey (which vociferously denies there was a genocide). This broken promise is a fine symbol of the realism that has defined Obama’s foreign policy to date.
BIGGEST SELL-OUT (RUNNER-UP): Hillary Clinton’s dismissal of human rights as a top priority in U.S.-China relations. On a trip to Beijing earlier this year, Clinton not only failed to press on human rights, but she also said the issue can’t be allowed to “interfere” with Obama administration priorities like global warming and containing Iran. This was the same Hillary Clinton whose prior crowning foreign policy moment was her defiant 1995 speech in Beijing on behalf of women’s rights.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Europe. So much for the notion that a change in presidencies, and Obama’s massive European popularity, would translate into a new burst of assistance from across the pond. European governments have accepted just a handful of inmates from Guantanamo Bay, further delaying Obama’s efforts to close the prison. And NATO countries are only coughing up a few thousand more troops for the war effort in Afghanistan.
NATIONAL SECURITY TEAM WINNERS:
Jim Jones. Obama’s laconic national security advisor underwent a round of Beltway hazing earlier this year, when he was the subject of a leak campaign about his work ethic and even his mental alertness. But reports of Jones’s demise have proven premature; he has outmaneuvered some of his rivals (see Mark Lippert, below), and with support from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, Jones now appears to have found a comfortable niche.
Robert Gates. Obama’s defense secretary played a pivotal role in the fall Afghanistan strategy review, and by many accounts Gates’s support for sending roughly 30,000 more U.S. troops was decisive as Obama weighed his options. The biggest question about Gates right now is whether he’ll agree to stay in his job past the 2010 midterm elections. Many people doubt it.
Hillary Clinton. Despite endless speculation about her supposed marginalization—and the occasional ill-advised slip of the tongue—there’s plenty of evidence that Clinton has clicked well in Obama’s cabinet. Her close relationships with powerful figures like Jones and Gates have ensured her influence in the Situation Room.
NATIONAL SECURITY TEAM LOSERS:
Mark Lippert. Obama’s original Senate foreign policy staffer joined the White House as NSC chief of staff and enjoyed heady influence on everything from policymaking to designating office space. But the thirty-something Lippert never clicked with the sixty-something Jim Jones, and became the target of critics who complained he had poorly served Obama at times—specifically in prepping an unsuccessful May visit with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah. Lippert, a Navy reservist, returned to active duty this fall, a move few close observers took to be voluntary.
Richard Holbrooke. Obama’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan got off to a high-profile start, only to find his public role diminished over time. A heated confrontation with Hamid Karzai left Holbrooke unable to deal with the Afghan president, and John Kerry had to take over negotiations following Afghanistan’s fraud-ridden election. A huge New Yorker profile didn’t help, giving purchase to complaints among some Obama loyalists—who recall Holbrooke’s devout support for Hillary Clinton in 2008—that the diplomat is too egocentric.
Joe Biden: The New York Times Magazine may have pronounced Biden the second-most powerful vice president ever. But when it came to Afghanistan, his position that Obama should eschew a big troop increase for a narrower counterterrorism mission was soundly rejected. Biden aides made it known that the VP pushed the July 2011 deadline to begin drawing down U.S. troops from the country. But it’s become clear how little practical meaning that deadline actually holds.