One hundred days isn’t enough to judge a presidency, the cautious pundits say. “It takes time for a president to put his team in place, formulate policy, steer legislation through Congress, and conduct foreign negotiations,” history professor Allan J. Lichtman writes in The Washington Post. Look instead, he says, to the next 100 days.
But we live in TwitterWorld, where all judgments are snap and Susan Boyle can go from unknown to over-exposed in less than a week. In a world of constant tweets, 100 days are an eternity. Think of all that you can learn (and forget) about Ashton Kutcher in three months!
Judged according to even the mayfly attention spans of TwitterWorld, the Obama administration moved quickly to implement its change agenda in the domestic sphere: pushing through an economic stimulus bill, painting the country Green, preparing the ground for long-awaited health care reform. Responding to the deep crisis we face on the home front, the new president implemented measurable change in record time. Indeed, in the Institute for Policy Studies’ new report on Obama’s first 100 days — Thirsting for Change — we give the new president pretty high marks for his domestic policies.
The score for foreign policy isn’t so clear-cut. In TwitterWorld, the temptation is to evaluate change on the basis of headlines and rhetorical flourishes. Accordingly, the new president would seem to have sharply broken with the international policies of the last administration. Obama issued executive orders to close the Guantánamo Bay prison in a year and end the U.S. use of torture. He stopped using the phrase “Global War on Terror” (GWOT). He promised to remove all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. He embraced the agenda of nuclear abolition. He has shaken Hugo Chávez’s hand. That’s five tweets right there, each under 140 characters.
But even these accomplishments are far from unalloyed. On torture, the administration has released damning Bush-era memos but has been cool to the idea of prosecuting those responsible or even holding an independent inquiry into these violations of international law. GWOT is dead, but “overseas contingency operations” are still claiming civilian lives in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s not yet clear, on Iraq, what will happen to U.S. military bases, U.S. contractors and foreign mercenaries, and the control of Iraqi oil. The commitment to nuclear abolition is undercut by Obama’s continued support of missile defense, which has blocked progress in disarmament in the past. The U.S. relationship with Venezuela may be on the upswing, but no handshakes are yet in the offing for Iran and North Korea.
Then there are the less appetizing continuities between the Obama and Bush foreign policies. These continuities even inspired a few tweets back in January that Obama is a closet neo-conservative. “In the area of foreign policy, where neo-cons in our own age have been most influential, Obama has echoed many of their concerns, and has adopted his own variant of a hawkish foreign policy,” neocon Ron Radosh wrote after the inauguration. “He has emphasized the need to win in Afghanistan, not to allow Iran to go nuclear, and has supported Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas terrorists.”
While it’s a stretch to make the new president into a neocon, his foreign policy has certainly emphasized certain continuities. Most disappointing has been the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan without any clear strategy and in the face of considerable evidence that a surge in troops won’t make that country more stable. Also disappointing has been the decision to increase military spending by 4%. At a time when we so desperately need to shift resources from our military to international diplomacy and human needs at home, it makes no sense whatsoever to add to the Pentagon budget.
Finally, although the Obama administration has wisely pushed other countries to pass economic stimulus packages in order to pull the global economy out of the recession, it has failed to implement “change we can believe in” in international financial architecture. It supported giving the International Monetary Fund practically a blank check, even though the IMF has been one of the institutions responsible for the mess that we’re in.
But just as the achievements come with qualifications, so too do the disappointments. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has courageously targeted some unnecessary Cold War weapons systems, like the F-22, and we might see a cut in Pentagon spending in the near future. U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan might drop off sharply after the August elections. Significant rapprochement with North Korea and Iran might be in the offing. There’s more going on here than meets the tweet.
In Thirsting for Change, which is an update of our comprehensive book Mandate for Change that outlines a progressive agenda for the Obama administration, we’ve represented our Change Meter as a glass of water. Obama started off in January with the water level halfway at 5 (whether it’s half-full or half-empty depends on whether you’re an optimist or not). In our report, we give him a 6 on his foreign policy. After 100 days, the glass is now definitely more than half full. But we’re still a long way off from a fundamentally new relationship between America and the world.
Trinidad and Beyond
Last week, I wrote about the potential for Obama to one-up FDR and create a Great Neighbor Policy. This week, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) columnist Laura Carlsen also has praise for Obama’s performance at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. But she also points out that the president’s trip to Mexico highlighted some unfortunate continuities in U.S. policy.
“Obama’s visit to Mexico was a message that U.S. military allies on the right will remain just that, even with renewed good relations in the rest of the hemisphere,” Carlsen writes in Words and Deeds in Trinidad. “Pluralism is fine, but the basis of the relationship with the Mexican and Colombian right-wing governments poses a threat to the expressed strategy of non-intervention. Under Plan Colombia and Plan Mérida, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have established a level of intervention and influence in sovereign affairs that contradicts the promise of ‘equal partners’ Obama presented at the summit.”
The least we should be doing, argues FPIF contributor John Lindsay-Poland, is to make sure that the militaries we fund, such as Colombia and Mexico, observe international standards of human rights. A congressional review of the Foreign Assistance Act, Lindsay-Poland writes in U.S.-Trained Human Rights Abusers, “offers an unprecedented opportunity to require periodic and comprehensive evaluation of the human rights impacts of U.S. military assistance. As part of such evaluation, the government should establish an independent commission to investigate the past activities of U.S. military schools, and make recommendations to establish safeguards to prevent violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.”
According to FPIF contributors Paul Farmer and Brian Concannon, Haitians are still waiting to see the change promised by the Obama administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a $50 million aid package to Haiti. But that’s just a start. “Money is notoriously short these days, but Haiti’s small scale makes it a relative bargain,” they write in Time to Deal with Haiti. “Three days’ spending in Iraq or two weeks’ interest on the U.S. bank bailout could fund Haiti’s entire government for a year. Prudent, depoliticized investments in Haiti’s democracy will yield dividends of prosperity and stability to Haiti, and will save U.S. taxpayer dollars in the long run by reducing the flow of refugees and drugs to our shores.”
Much the same can be said about Bolivia, which also suffers under the burden of debt. In FPIF Picks, contributor Mary Tharin reviews a new book, Dignity and Defiance. “Bolivia’s long history of international debt constitutes one major aspect of the country’s embattled position in the world economy,” she writes. “But a number of other factors also contribute, including multinational corporations, destructive drug eradication policies, and high levels of corruption within the Bolivian government and abroad. Dignity and Defiance weaves these threads together with vivid detail and clarity, drawing upon personal accounts and on-the-ground research.”
President Obama isn’t only being evaluated domestically at the 100-day mark, but abroad as well. In Kenya, for instance, the president is practically considered a leader in absentia.
“T-shirts with Mr. Obama’s smiling face are sold at the local markets, and his portrait grins from the artwork in local galleries,” writes FPIF contributor Andre Vltchek in Postcard from…Nairobi. “Thanks to Photoshop, his finger points accusatively from the front pages of local newspapers at misbehaving local politicians. He is admired and loved, and expected to save Kenya. And there’s no use explaining that the White House does not consider Africa its priority; after all, Obama’s envoys recently helped save the political coalition of Kenya’s prime minister and president, two men from rivaling tribes.”
Elsewhere in Africa, Obama has a chance to create a legacy of change, for instance in Western Sahara, one of the last post-colonial territorial disputes on the continent. Many within Western Sahara want independence or at least greater autonomy. Morocco would prefer to have the international community recognize Western Sahara as part of its territory. “At the end of April, the UN Security Council will have the opportunity to make the right choice or the safe choice when it renews the authorization for the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO),” writes FPIF contributor Jacob Mundy in Unlocking the Conflict in Western Sahara. “The right choice would be to give the new UN envoy a mandate for peace. To do this, the Security Council would have to secure the commitment of both sides of the conflict, Morocco and the pro-independence Polisario Front, to power-sharing and self-determination. The safe choice, meanwhile, would be to continue under the weak mandate that contributed to the failure of the previous UN envoy.” Alas, as in other parts of the world, the Obama administration hasn’t quite turned its back on the Bush’s militarist legacy in Africa. Washington is still wedded to the new Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its military misadventures.
“In early February, The New York Times released information detailing the involvement of the U.S. military in the bungled Ugandan mission to oust the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from northeastern DR Congo,” writes FPIF contributor Beth Tuckey in AFRICOM’s Uganda Blunder. “Seventeen military advisors from AFRICOM worked closely with the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces to plan the attack, which the United States further subsidized through the donation of satellite phones and $1 million worth of fuel. Although the United States has been training the Ugandan military for years, this is the first time it has directly assisted in carrying out an operation.”
The Obama administration didn’t, in the end, participate in the UN conference on racism in Geneva last week, even though conference organizers bent over backwards to ensure U.S. participation. In Missing an Anti-Racism Moment, FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes explains why the Obama administration was wrong to stay home.
“With pressure from the United States and some other countries, the draft declaration prepared for this year’s conference dropped a call to ban ‘defamation of religion,’ which raised concerns regarding restricting free speech, as well as any references to Israel and Palestine,” Zunes writes. “State Department spokesperson Robert Wood acknowledged that the draft was ‘significantly improved,’ and that the United States was ‘deeply grateful’ that requested changes had been made. Yet he announced the United States would boycott the conference anyway because the document reaffirmed the final declaration of the 2001 meeting in Durban right-wing critics had labeled ‘anti-Israel.’”
On this issue of contested language, FPIF contributor Emanuel Pastreich argues that the big environmental organizations are missing out on a huge potential audience by failing to translate their materials into Chinese, Hindi, and other languages. “Getting serious about combating climate change isn’t about bringing English speakers from developing nations to listen to Harvard professors,” he writes in The Language of Climate Change, “it’s about talking to players at the local level in the languages they best understand.”
Rogues and Pirates
President Obama earned the praise of just about everyone when he ordered the killing of three teenage Somali pirates who made the big mistake of taking an American skipper hostage. It was a sad, Ricky Ray Rector moment for the president. Remember Ricky Ray Rector, the mentally damaged killer whose execution Bill Clinton presided over during his 1992 campaign for the presidency? You can’t be president unless you can show that you’re a tough guy.
I take two different looks at the Somali pirate episode. In a piece for TomDispatch, I look at how the Pentagon is taking even more advantage of the pirates than Clinton did of Ricky Ray Rector. After all, they need something to justify continued high levels of military spending. “Pirates are the perfect threat,” I write in Monsters vs. Aliens. “They’ve been around forever. They directly interfere with the bottom line, so the business community is on board. Unlike China, they don’t hold any U.S. Treasury Bonds. Indeed, since they’re non-state actors, we can bring virtually every country onto our side against them.”In a longer piece for the Foreign Policy In Focus Strategic Focus on empire, I look at the role that pirates have played in the construction of U.S. empire. “In the late 18th and early 19th century, the United States waged a two-decades-long conflict with several states along the North African coast,” I write in Piracy and Empire. “This campaign inspired the expansion of the Marines and the creation of the modern U.S. Navy. At a time of America’s general weakness — fighting with little success against the French and the British — the Barbary wars were a rare success for the young republic. It was, in short, history ripe for the misuse: a war against Muslim terrorists avant la lettre that resulted in U.S. military victory and an early triumph for free trade.”
Finally, in The Korea Herald, I give some unsolicited advice to North Korea, which has recently kicked out nuclear inspectors and restarted its plutonium program. “Pyongyang can extend its 15 minutes of international attention by following its demonstration of power with a show of diplomacy,” I write in North Korea’s Sunshine Policy. “North Korea should revive its charm offensive from 2000, when Jo Myong-rok visited Washington and Kim Jong-Il received Madeleine Albright in Pyongyang. It should adopt a sunshine policy of its own toward the United States, Japan and South Korea.” Now that would be “change we can believe in!”
In Our Circles
In her piece on the Legacy Project, FPIF contributor Channapha Khamvongsa discussed the impact of cluster bombs in Laos and elsewhere. Her project now has a petition online that you can sign to support an increase in U.S. funding to help clear contaminated land and provide assistance to victims and affected communities.
FPIF contributor Mark Sedra is organizing an e-conference on how to transform the security and justice architecture of the state in post-conflict and transitional contexts. To participate, visit the Centre for International Governance Innovation website.
Finally, if you’re in Washington, come join us this Wednesday, April 29 from noon to 1 p.m. at the Institute for Policy Studies office — 1112 16th Street NW; Suite 600 — to hear the poetry of FPIF contributors E. Ethelbert Miller and Melissa Tuckey.
FPIF, April 28, 2009