Almost one hundred days ago, Barack Obama mapped out an extraordinarily ambitious foreign policy and national security agenda of reconciliation with people of different ideologies and faiths. It's goal? To forge a "new way forward" based on "mutual interest and mutual respect." Its symbol is an extended American hand in exchange for an unclenched fist.
How's he doing? Very well, given the mess he inherited. He has implemented key campaign pledges, at least rhetorically, while leaving himself considerable wiggle room. On his first day in office, for instance, he announced that he would close Guantanamo and end "enhanced interrogation techniques," known to most English speakers as torture. But he pushed Gitmo's closure off by a year and created a task force to decide whether, where, and how the "worst of the worst" and future detainees are to be held. While he abolished torture, he formed another group to study which techniques are legitimate and devise a broader framework for their use. Wisely, Obama has usually created a trap door for himself, in case a decision or policy turns out to be unrealistic or unwise.
Despite his inspirational rhetoric, he is remarkably pragmatic, centrist, and in some instances, quite steely. In Iraq, for instance, he set a compromise deadline for withdrawing, but made clear that a deterioration in security might prompt him to reevaluate the pace of withdrawal. In Afghanistan, while he vowed to limit the war to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and its allies," he effectively embraced nation-building by pledging to train Afghan security forces, fight the drug trade, restructure the agricultural sector, reduce corruption, and do what is needed to prevent the Taliban from returning. Under President Obama, the war in Afghanistan has officially become his Af-Pak war. He has "surged" forces while eschewing the word. The number of combat, training, and support troops in Afghanistan is scheduled to increase from the 31,000 deployed at the end of President Bush's term in December, 2008 to some 68,000 this fall.
Several top appointees have military backgrounds or are veterans of the Bush era so despised by the left-wing of his party – Pentagon chief Robert Gates, for instance, General Jim Jones, his national security adviser, and Admiral Dennis Blair, his director of national intelligence. For his secretary of state, he chose former rival Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy/national security views – having supported the war in Iraq, for one — are much to the right of his own. While he has endorsed greater effort to cooperate with such multilateral institutions as the United Nations, he refused to attend its despicable racism conference in Durban. President Obama clearly knows how to say no.
As promised, he has elevated the priority of such goals as arms control and non-proliferation – appointing a czar and promoting talented, key people in agencies with a stake in such efforts. But the challenges in this vital arena grow more daunting each day. Iran and North Korea have both responded provocatively to his initial reconciliation gestures, though Obama did not expect instant reversals of bad behavior. Moreover, he has not ruled out tougher economic and other measures later on should his charm offensive fail. Yes, his apology and contrition tour of Latin America and Europe infuriated many Americans, particularly conservatives. Why should Obama have apologized for having used an atomic weapon against Japan on the continent that the United States helped rescue twice in this century –- first from fascist and then communist aggression? Was this not the president who declared in his inaugural address not to "apologize for our way of life" nor "waver in its defense"?
But his extended hand seemed to catch Russia and others off guard. In Latin America, his smile and handshake put blustering regional bully Hugo Chavez on the defensive and forced Raoul Castro, another thug, to agree to discuss loosening restrictions inside Cuba's authoritarian regime (an apparently overtly accommodating response that his ailing brother repudiated the following day.). While his listening trip to Europe failed to secure more troops for Afghanistan or help in stimulating the depressed world economy, it did secure a large multilateral commitment to the IMF and encouraged Turkey and Armenia to make progress in resolving their ancient quarrel. More broadly, Obama's calm, assured, conciliatory demeanor has served as a "reset" button for diplomacy – a signal that he wants not only to listen to what allies say, but to accept their advice when it serves American interests.
That's the good news about this hundred day honeymoon. Yet storm clouds are gathering for the next. North Korea, Iran, and even Russia seem determined to test this inspirational, enigmatic, inexperienced leader. Al Qaeda, too, will not surrender. Though he has rhetorically repudiated the "Global War on Terror," the much diminished, but patient and tactically adroit Usama Bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri will not stop their world-wide struggle against the Great and Little Satans — America and its regional ally, Israel. Their stated strategy is to divide American efforts against them, increase activity in vacuums like Somalia, and stir up trouble again in Iraq and other areas where progress has been made. As Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently warned, Al Qaeda is still plotting a third, even more deadly attack against New York, its top target. Should the worst happen on his watch, Obama will be blamed, particularly because he has so often and harshly criticized his predecessor's record on terrorism and because he prefers euphemisms to blunt talk in discussing the threat posed by the world's most dangerous, militant Muslims.
President Obama has been slow to appoint a national security team and lax in vetting them. Stymied by the very purer-than-driven-snow standards that he ordained, he has been forced to fall back on academics and think tankers short on concrete managerial experience, particularly in Washington's Byzantine ways. The two top people in charge of the Pentagon's $150 billion dollar acquisition budget, for instance, are a lobbyist and a Harvard professor (though a brilliant one who has served at the Pentagon) with no track-record in this complex area. There have been worrisome protocol goofs – no Mr. President, you don't appear to bow to a Saudi king, and no, Ms. FLOTUS, you don't touch the Queen of England, and just how do you say "reset" in Russian? His tendency to compromise has backfired badly at least once. His decision to release the Justice Department torture memos while vowing not to prosecute those who implemented those "techniques" or issued the legal advice profoundly misjudged the inevitable political response. Trying to put out a political fire, he doused it in gasoline. Given his huge popularity, Mr. Obama can probably afford one of two such errors. More of them will soon raise questions about his competence.