President Obama’s foreign policy report card for 2013

The Washington PostJanuary 4, 2014 

Foreign policy is really hard. Most countries have more foreign policy disappointments than successes (maybe the one big exception this year was Russia), and the United States, which has the most assertive foreign policy in the world, was certainly no exception. What follows is a subjective attempt to grade the Obama administration’s efforts at accomplishing what appear to have been its 10 highest foreign policy priorities of 2013. I’m grading based on the degree to which the administration did or did not accomplish its own goals, rather than on the merits of those goals.

Afghanistan-Pakistan: C-

The United States has mostly succeeded at disengaging from the war and heading toward the 2014 troop drawdown; it hasn’t exactly patched things up with Pakistan, but relations are not as terrible as they’ve been in previous years. No one thinks the drone-dominated counter-terrorism efforts are anywhere near perfect, but they’ve settled in as status quo. Still, it’s all a tacit admission that the United States didn’t really achieve any of President Barack Obama’s main goals in Afghanistan. The administration was hoping to at least pressure the Taliban into accepting a peace deal and that now looks pretty unlikely.

China: A

The U.S. balancing act always looked difficult to the point of near-impossibility: hem in China’s rise by making friends with its neighbors, but without giving Beijing an excuse to push back; get China to relax the currency restrictions that hurt American exports; foster China’s economic growth but keep it in check militarily; keep China’s territorial disputes from spiraling out of control, but still exploit them to assert the United States as a keeper of East Asian stability; push back on Chinese cyber espionage, which is spiraling out of control and, most difficult of all; maintain friendly relations with Beijing. Even with the U.S. successes in reining in China, June’s summit between Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in California seemed to go well.

As a senior U.S. diplomat once told The New York Times’s David Sanger, “If we get China wrong, in 30 years that’s the only thing anyone will remember.”

Egypt: F

There’s no getting around it: The United States flunked on Egypt by every conceivable metric. Here are the three things it wanted to do: Prevent the Egyptian military from staging a coup, maintain a positive relationship with the military and try to keep Egypt on some sort of post-revolutionary path toward liberal democracy. It failed spectacularly on the first and third and has jeopardized the second.

It did try to stop the July 2 military coup against the country’s first democratically elected (if deeply problematic) president. But the administration was only willing to privately urge against the coup; after the fact, it hedged, refusing to condemn it or even call it a coup. The new Egyptian government may have taken this as tacit approval for its brutal crackdown on pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, which the United States also did little to stop. Egypt today is backsliding far away from any democratic gain, the United States is more widely and openly loathed than at any time in recent memory, and the high-level relationship is remarkably weak.

Iran: B+

The temporary deal with Iran over its nuclear program is certainly the biggest headline success of U.S. foreign policy this year. The administration has been working toward this point pretty much since Obama came into office. Still, the deal is just temporary, Congress is working to scuttle it by passing new sanctions, Iranian leaders could renege (if they haven’t already), etc. If the deal falls through, it could actually make things worse by weakening the U.S.-organized effort to isolate Iran over its nuclear program. That’s why this isn’t an A grade.

Israel: C+

Security cooperation has improved, and so have direct diplomatic relations after a few very rocky years of tension between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Obama administration couldn’t keep Israel from bucking the Iran talks, but Netanyahu has since backed off his direst warnings of doom and disaster. That’s all pretty good.

Not as good: The Israel-Turkey reconciliation that Obama worked so hard for has fallen apart, Israel is still far from on board for the Iran deal and, perhaps most importantly, the Israel-Palestine peace process is not looking so good.

North Korea: B+

War did not break out this March when North Korea pledged all sorts of annihilation. The episode ended with South Korea and Japan still deeply reliant on the United States to maintain security in East Asia. Even better, there were hints that China might finally be losing its patience with Pyongyang’s provocations (although that’s been a recurring theme in North Korea’s only real alliance).

Russia: D

The U.S.-Russia relationship had a horrible year from beginning to end: It started with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ban on allowing American families to adopt Russian children, hit a low point with Russia sheltering former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and is set to fall lower still with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which Obama is skipping in implicit protest of Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Snowden blowback: D-

The damage from Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping was widespread, causing real damage for U.S. diplomacy around the world but especially in Europe and Latin America, both regions that have always bristled under U.S. dominance, although for different reasons. The United States’ relationships with Brazil and Germany in particular were never perfect but took substantial hits. The administration’s diplomatic handling of the crisis was not always astute, shifting between “it’s not as bad as it looks,” “everybody does it” and “we’re sorry.” Several months of international headlines seemed to confirm many of the world’s worst suspicions about the United States and its role as world power.

Syria: D

Yes, the United States succeeded in striking an important deal for removing Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, which will help to protect the norm against their use and will restrict or maybe even end Assad’s ability to use them. That’s important.

But, outside of the chemical weapons deal, U.S. policy on Syria has seen failures on nearly every front. Obama’s big, stated goals are 1) to bring about a negotiated political solution between the rebels and the Assad regime; 2) to curb extremism’s rise in Syria; 3) to curb Syria’s many humanitarian crises. These have all moved severely in the opposite direction over the last year.

The Washington Post

Max Fisher anchors WorldViews, the Washington Post’s foreign news blog.

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