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April 28, 2009

Obama's First 100 Days
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

At the 100-day mark, the Obama administration has many things on its plate and even more challenges ahead.  With policy reviews and staffing incomplete and some choices not yet made, evaluations at this date are at best artificial – yet the Obama administration has produced a remarkable body of early actions.  NSN offers five themes that define and give shape to the Administration’s broad range of action – and point the way toward the future.  The Administration has moved aggressively to regain US prestige, reject failed ideas, put in place comprehensive strategies, bring 21st century approaches to bear on 21st century problems and signal continued US strength.  These five approaches have laid a solid foundation for the heavy lifting that now begins to reshape America’s place in the world and ultimately sculpt an “Obama Doctrine.”

Regaining U.S. prestige.  After eight years during which global respect for the United States fell to an all-time low, Obama has made it clear that his vision of American power rests on American prestige and the ability to lead by example.  Conservatives have tried to depict this style of leadership as weakness, but as the President recently explained, it is nothing of the sort: “[W]e had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. The American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it -- because it doesn't make sense.” On the second day of his administration the President sent a clear message that America would seek to regain the high ground when he banned torture and announced his plan to close the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay.  He and his Cabinet have reached out repeatedly to improve perceptions among Muslim nations, calling during his inaugural address for a relationship based on “mutual interests and mutual respect,” granting his first interview as President to Al-Arabiya, and making it explicit that “America is not at war with Islam.”  He has reversed Bush administration policies that blocked cooperation with the UN on issues from family planning to peacekeeping to the International Criminal Court – blockages that had negative repercussions in global public opinion and on the ground in some of the world’s most desperate places. 

Using comprehensive strategies.
  For the past eight years, the US focused too much on military-centric approaches while ignoring other key tools of national power, and looked at challenges country-by-country instead of seeing the connections between issues and regions.  The Obama Administration has sought to return a comprehensive vision to issues such as the Middle East – addressing many of the festering problems instead of looking for a silver bullet through the invasion of Iraq – and Pakistan, whose problems are thoroughly integrated with Afghanistan but lacked any strategy beyond military aid.  The Obama Administration’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan focuses not just on military operations, but also on governmental capacity building, economic development and regional diplomatic strategies.   At home, diplomacy and development have received short shrift – and the result has been that we do not have the civilian capabilities we need to deal with the complex and irregular wars of the 21st century.  The Obama Administration has begun to make long-term changes to address these problems: crafting a budget that raises the State Department’s profile, increasing civilian international affairs spending by 10 percent and resourcing the Pentagon for the next century’s engagements while cutting ineffective, unnecessary and outdated weapons programs such as the F-22, the DDG -1000 destroyer and Future Combat Systems.
Rejecting failed ideas.
  Obama has shown a refreshing willingness to discard foreign policy dogmas that no longer apply or have proven false.  In this way, he is opening up potential new opportunities for the United States to achieve its interests in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere.  After thirty years of mutual distrust, the President has reached out aggressively to Iran: directly addressing Iran’s people and leaders, inviting Iran to participate in an Afghanistan donors conference at The Hague and having Special Representative Richard Holbrooke meet with the Iranian representative at the conference.  Obama began the process of altering fifty years of failed policies toward Cuba: removing barriers preventing Cuban Americans from sending remittances to the island, lifting the travel ban to Cuba for Cuban Americans and permitting American telecommunication companies to sell services to Cuba. Both the Cuban and Iranian regimes have responded with willingness to dialogue – though the central challenges lie ahead.

Understanding 21st century problems.  Obama has begun rebuilding the institutions and partnerships necessary to deal with the transnational problems of an integrated world.  In response to the global economic crisis, the Obama administration successfully built consensus among the world’s major economies at the G20 conference in London on a coordinated response that included $1.1 trillion in commitments to the IMF to prevent the collapse of national economies, a new system of greater global financial regulation, and a commitment to free trade.  The President has also set out to reinvigorate the global non-proliferation regime, laying out his vision for a nuclear free world during a major address in Prague.  He also came to an agreement with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to start negotiations on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to be completed by the end of this year and has made ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty an important legislative priority.  The administration has started work on a national climate change policy and signaled to our allies that we will look to work with them to address this transnational threat through UN negotiations, the creation of an Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas, and renewed energy/environment talks with China.

Signaling U.S. strength.
  While abandoning the counterproductive over-the-top rhetoric of the Bush administration, the President has projected an image of American strength abroad.  His “no drama” handling of the pirate hostage crisis off the coast of Somalia successfully passed an early test.  The President also enunciated a firm approach to counter the Al Qaeda threat, stating in his inaugural address: “for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, ‘Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.’”  He also signaled an appetite for hard-nosed security bargaining by linking the missile defense system in Europe to greater Russian cooperation on Iran.  And his defense budget grows the Army and Marines and fully funds the needs of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.


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