Grading Obama's foreign-policy foray

By Josh Gerstein
|  Saturday, Sep 26, 2009  |  Updated 8:00 AM CDT
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Grading Obama's Foreign-Policy Foray

The White House

Libyan leader Moammar Khaddafy continued his whirlwind New York City trip with a visit to the family of a man killed in the Lockerbie bombings, an attack widely attributed to the dictator Khaddafy's home country.

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President Barack Obama is calling his marathon week of speechifying and summiteering at the United Nations and the G-20 in Pittsburgh a rousing success. 

“We achieved….a new commitment to meet common challenges, and real progress in advancing America’s national security and economic prosperity,” Obama declared in his weekly radio and Internet address out Saturday morning. 

But how much did Obama truly accomplish in furthering his overseas agenda amid a dizzying series of handshakes, one-on-one meetings, summit sessions, and diplomatic dining? 

POLITICO talked with experts and handed out some grades for the president’s first big foreign-policy foray inside the U.S. 

Jumpstarting Israeli-Palestinian peace 

In New York, Obama strong-armed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas into a meeting, a handshake and an agreement to move towards restarting peace talks.
But to get there, Obama had to put aside the demands he had been making for months that Israel cease building and expanding settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel talked about budging but wouldn’t give much ground – and in the intricate ways of the Mideast peace process, it looked like a significant cave-in by Obama. 

“A superpower pays a price any time a tinier power says no,” warned Aaron David Miller, a Middle East peace negotiator during the Clinton Administration. 

He also said the public pressure from Obama on settlements has upset many Israelis. “We’ve broken a lot of crockery with the Israelis. This is not fatal, but it’s one problem they face” in the Obama White House, Miller said. 

For their part, many Palestinians aren’t too happy either. Some see the decision by Obama to set aside the settlements fight for now as a blow to Abbas and a boon to hardliners in Hamas. 

“People are still going to give [Obama] the benefit of the doubt and work with him, but they’re frustrated, obviously,” said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland. 

The bottom line: the photo of Abbas and Netantyahu standing together is a baby step in the right direction, and something Obama badly wanted as a sign of progress in the peace process, but the cost in getting it was high. And it’s still not clear whether the White House is ready to make the intensive effort to get real compromise on the core issues. 

POLITICO grade: C-plus 

Tightening the screws on Iran 

The biggest news of the week came out of an event that wasn’t even on Obama’s schedule when he left Washington Monday morning: the startling announcement by Obama and his French and British counterparts Friday that Iran has been secretly constructing a second underground site to enrich nuclear fuel. 

The stern ultimatum from Obama and the other leaders was riveting, but it was thrown together at the last minute after Iran made a vague and pre-emptive disclosure of the site to the International Atomic Energy Agency this week. 

“This probably wasn’t exactly the way we planned it,” said Kenneth Pollack, an Iran expert at Brookings Institution’s Saban Center. “We could have gone to the October 1 talks with the Iranians, pulled out the photos, slid them across the table and said, ‘Explain these!’” 

Still, the images of Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown jointly calling Tehran out were high drama that couldn’t have been easily arranged if the announcement were done after the leaders left Pittsburgh. 

“It couldn’t have worked out much better,” said Pollack. “We’re in a much stronger position that we would have thought a week ago.” 

That said, there were some wrinkles. The way it played out, the Iranians are claiming they made a unilateral decision to reveal the site. And the White House appeared a bit overly eager to portray a united front as Obama aides exaggerated the degree of public movement from the Russians. They told reporters that a statement Russian President Dmitri Medvedev made to Obama about sanctions sometimes being inevitable was a breakthrough when, in fact, he’d made similar comments in an interview days earlier. 

 

 

And the usual sanctions holdout, China, issued a mild statement against Iran Friday, a sign that big-powers talks with Iran Oct. 1 won’t yield immediate action.

Some conservatives also say the scary Iran news – not one but two nuclear facilities -- is just plain scary and no coup for the Obama administration’s efforts to get a consensus for sanctions.

“Maybe if Iran tests a nuclear weapon, that will strengthen our hand, too,” former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton scoffed sarcastically. “This is a catastrophe.”

POLITICO Grade: B-plus

Projecting diplomatic gravitas

Obama’s maiden speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday was well-delivered and well-received, if not terribly compelling. He probably could have boiled the 38-minute address into four words – I’m not George Bush – but he also issued a challenge to the world’s nations that they can’t gripe about American unilateralism and then expect Obama to solve all their problems.

Conservatives think he offered too many regrets for torture and the Guantanamo Bay prison and resurrected their claims that Obama is on a world “apology tour.” (Obama, of course, didn’t tell the world body that he’s effectively given up hope of meeting his goal of closing the much-reviled Gitmo prison by January, due to the difficulties in finding new facilities for the prisoners there.)

Obama’s relatively tidy talk quickly became the morning’s hands-down favorite after he was followed at the podium by Libyan President Moammar Qadhafi, who spent an hour and 36 minutes ranting about drug companies making swine flu and Israel’s involvement in the JFK assassination. The New York Post reported Qadhafi’s translator collapsed at minute 75 – but Obama didn’t hang around to hear a word of it.

POLITICO Grade: A-minus

Dodging dictators

Obama proved unusually deft at this delicate task. Qadhafi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe all were in the audience at Obama’s big U.N. speech – a diplomatic obstacle course for a president just trying to make it out the door – but Obama managed to emerge without a single distracting photo of him glad-handing with an anti-American villain.
Obama’s aides were almost certain he would cross paths with Qadhafi at a Security Council session, but the Libyan skipped the meeting of what he had described a day earlier as a “terror council” akin to Al Qaeda. 

POLITICO Grade: A-plus 

 

Reforming the world economy

With the economic crisis fading into memory, the betting line on the G-20 economic summit was that little would get done, especially with the United States and Europe at odds over on how to avoid Meltdown II.
But perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the nations’ actually agreed to some far-reaching steps along the lines Obama was pushing: The U.S. would try to stop being such a hungry consumer and increase savings. China will try to stop basing its whole economy on selling us everything in sight. And all the nations will try to keep a tighter rein on big banks – and big bankers, and their big bonuses.

The biggest change was that each of the countries agreed to a “peer review” of its economic policies by other governments, along with monitoring by the International Monetary Fund – a rare bout of openness for policies most countries consider their national prerogative. “We have achieved a level of tangible, global economic cooperation that we’ve never seen before,” Obama said -- and many experts said he’s right. His call for fixing dangerous trade “imbalances” in the world economy influenced the debate. The caveats: much of what was hashed out in Pittsburgh was non-binding, with no enforcement mechanism. The U.S. pushed for a requirement that banks hold more cash reserves as a cushion against losses – but the nations couldn't agree how much. And when it came to curbing bonuses, the European push for hard caps fell short while the Obama administration’s approach of deferring the bonuses won out – a sign Wall Street’s influence was felt at the G-20.

Politico grade: B

Fixing Afghanistan

Officials acknowledged that nearly all the bilateral meetings were dominated by a possible showdown with Iran, not the showdown with the Taliban and Al Qaeda that U.S. and NATO troops are facing daily in Afghanistan.

The war did come up in passing at sessions with the Japanese prime minister and British PM Brown -- but the latter meeting had all the hallmarks of a perfunctory photo-op arranged to rebut perceptions that Brown was being snubbed, not a serious war council.

The timing of the leak of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s report last weekend underscored the unresolved debate in Washington about American strategy in Afghanistan. In that environment, it was next to impossible to win, or even ask, for additional help this week.

Nothing gained on this front, which could be the most daunting national security challenge Obama faces.

POLITICO Grade: C

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