Obama’s Year of ‘Engagement’ Saw Few Clear Successes
December 31, 2009 - 5:12 AMJames Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, summarized President Obama's first year in office as "great expectations running smack into daunting realities." The "realities are winning," he added.
On the eve of 2010, and after almost a year of the Obama administration’s policy of engagement, there are few signs of improvement in any of those areas.
Supporters of multilateralism welcome what they regard as a significant change in atmosphere, and polls do appear to signal a lessening of anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world.
But actual achievements remain elusive.
James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, summarized President Obama’s first year in office with the words, “Great expectations running smack into daunting realities.” And, he added, “realities are winning.”
In Afghanistan, an already deteriorating situation worsened this year: The number of Americans killed exceed 300 – a figure accounting for almost one-third of the total number of U.S. fatalities recorded there since the late 2001 invasion to topple the Taliban regime.
Obama early on increased the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and then, following a drawn-out review process, on December 1 announced an additional 30,000 troops would be deployed, a move designed “to bring this war to a successful conclusion.” The troops, he said, would “begin to come home” after 18 months.
The increase will take U.S. troops numbers, including those in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to around 100,000.
Despite the worsening conflict, Obama has to date proven little more successful than his predecessor in getting allies to step up their troop contributions.
The other 42 members of ISAF together provide some 40,000 troops. Following Obama’s announcement, NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he hoped to secure an increase of around 5,000 troops from non-U.S. ISAF countries in 2010. That is only half of the number Washington had been seeking.
Germany and France, arguably the European NATO members most critical of President Bush’s foreign policies and most welcoming of Obama’s election victory, have expressed reluctance to add to their existing numbers – less than 4,000 in the case of France, and around 4,400 in the case of Germany.
They and other ISAF countries are holding off on announcing any deployment decisions until a conference on Afghanistan is held in London at the end of January.
In neighboring Pakistan, security has deteriorated markedly this year, with more than 1,400 people killed and thousands more injured in almost 500 bombings, according to figures compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal in New Delhi.
At the same time, Obama ratcheted up the use of unnamed drones against terror targets in the lawless tribal belt and frontier regions. A study by the New America Foundation released at the end of October found that the U.S. carried out more drone attacks in Pakistan since Obama took office than under Bush in the years from 2006 to early 2009.
The study found that the strikes under Obama had killed around 450 people, about one-quarter of them civilians, and “at most half a dozen militant leaders.”
One significant victory was the killing in an August drone missile strike of Baitullah Mehsud, the head of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and the man responsible for numerous suicide bombings in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
While the vast majority of terror attacks carried out by Islamic groups this year was aimed at Muslims – especially in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq – Westerners were also targeted on several occasions, including the bombing of luxury hotels in Jakarta in July, the Fort Hood shooting in November, and the attempt to bring down a U.S. aircraft approaching Detroit on Christmas Day. North Korea
Obama’s efforts to resolve North Korean nuclear standoff have borne little evident fruit.
The Stalinist regime has refused to return to six-party talks first begun in August 2003 as a multilateral bid to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.
It also tested a nuclear weapon in May; in April launched what it claimed to be a rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit and what the U.S. military identified as a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile; and fired a barrage of SCUD missiles into the Sea of Japan on the Fourth of July.
One glimmer of hope came this month, when a special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, visited Pyongyang for what he described afterwards as “quite positive” and without “a lot of heated rhetoric.”
But whether the visit brings a return to the talks and movement to the goal of shutting down the nuclear programs any closer, remains to be seen.
In a briefing after the trip, Bosworth cited the “sequencing” of various elements – including denuclearization, the provision of energy and economic assistance, the normalization of relations – as “one of the first challenges” negotiators will face when the six-party talks eventually resume.
In fact, “sequencing” – who moves first, and in what order the reciprocal steps are taken – has been a stumbling block cited over and over in the talks since 2005, at least.
Obama’s approach to Iran has widely been deemed unsuccessful. He sent letters to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and in a videotaped Persian new year message in March offered Iran “a new beginning,” saying he sought “engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.”
The public response to those overtures, from Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) leaders among others, has been universally negative.
Even though Obama was cautious in his reaction to Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election and the violent clampdown on the opposition – his strongest response came just this week – for its part Tehran has not tempered its criticism and accusations of U.S. meddling in Iranian affairs.
The protests on Sunday, the most serious since the summer, were the “nauseating” work of “America and the Zionists,” Ahmadinejad declared on Tuesday. In an ominous development Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of supporters of the regime took to the streets demanding the execution of opposition leaders, and denouncing the U.S. and Britain.
Obama’s multilateral approach to Iran’s nuclear activities – not substantively different from that followed by the previous administration during its latter stages – has also achieved little.
As in previous years, offers have been put to Tehran, and rejected. As the year draws to a close and with it a White House deadline for Iran to act or face “tough” new sanctions, both China and Russia have again signaled their opposition to punitive measures.
Administration officials have voiced little enthusiasm for a Congress-pushed bid to block gasoline imports. Any unilateral sanctions in the new year are expected to include ones that tighten those imposed by Bush in 2007, targeting the IRGC.
Richard Perle, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in an article in The American Interest dated January 1 that there was nothing unusual in seeking to engage adversaries but Obama had given no sign of operating from a position of strength.
“On the contrary, he appears as an anxious supplicant,” he said.
“His belief that an open hand will be seen as an expression of good will to be reciprocated is simply wrong,” Perle argued. “Unless it is part of a larger strategy, an outstretched hand runs the risk of conveying weakness.”