Barack Obama’s savviest public relations move as a candidate was when he told an interviewer, shortly before the election, that the conventional time lapse for measuring an infant presidency — the first 100 days — would be insufficient given the amount of work the new administration would have to do. Instead, Obama said, we had better wait until the first 1,000 days to make a fair assessment. This struck me as very reasonable at the time, and also uncharacteristic of the man who often gloried in raising expectations to celestial impossibility. Nevertheless, we have a fondness for revisiting stale political metrics, and so now that that 100 day mark has arrived, it is worth inquiring how the president has done. Since his greatest perceived weakness as a candidate was foreign policy, it is interesting to note that this is precisely the area in which Obama has impressed many of his former critics. For instance, I doubt very much that the average reader of Commentary would have expected to see, on November 5, an observation like the following being made on the journal’s blog a few months later:
It is, of course, premature to conclude that Obama’s foreign policy is essentially the third term of the Bush administration. There could be big discontinuities later on; they just haven’t appeared yet. That hasn’t been obvious because of Obama’s symbolic moves such as apologizing for alleged American misdeeds and shaking hands with Hugo Chavez. I don’t mean to suggest that symbolism isn’t important. It is. But substance is even more important, and on that score I think Obama deserves a solid passing grade on foreign policy for his first 100 Days.
The emphasis is mine, but the sentiment belongs to Max Boot, an adviser to the man who was supposed to be heir to George Bush’s “third term.” Though Boot is not alone among hawks and interventionists in offering a favorable assessment of the new president. At a March 31 conference on Afghanistan organized and hosted by the new neoconservative think tank the Foreign Policy Initiative, the president, although absent, was the subject of what Robert Kagan called a “love fest.” Praising Obama’s commitment to dispatch 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan as “gutsy and correct” and “one of the most important decisions he makes in his presidency,” the author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams added:
I think that one of the really important aspects of the President’s decision is that it definitely — he is definitely saying “no” to pulling back. If anything, he has clearly deepened and strengthened America’s commitment to a difficult conflict in a far-off part of the world of which the American people know little.
And the president has made this decision, Kagan added, despite calls from within his own administration to act otherwise. Even John McCain, also a participant in the FPI conference, felt compelled to note that his own thinking is more or less the same as his erstwhile rival’s on Afghanistan and that, pace those who think Obama has been too eager to assail his predecessor, many of the challenges facing the current rescue operation of that country are the results of bad planning in the Bush years. (We forget that the shuttering of Guantanamo Bay and the discontinuation of “enhanced interrogation” techniques were executive inevitabilities.)
Ironically, Obama’s greatest asset as a candidate has proved to be his worst shortcoming as president: language. First there was the feckless renaming of the “war on terror” to “global contingency operations,” which, going by anything other than Orwellian euphemism, encompasses everything from ordering Navy Seals to assassinate Somali pirates to benignly relocating a U.S. battleship from one body of water to another. (Let’s not even start on “man-caused disasters.”)
A bit overzealous to herald and re-herald American renewal, the president often speaks as if he answers to an international constituency despite asserting that the world’s only superpower is merely a country like any other. In Strasbourg, France, last month, he clunkily redefined the notion of American exceptionalism as something akin to run-of-the-mill patriotism: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” This is what I would call cosmopolitanism ad absurdum, on par with serious contemplation about the Great Canadian Novel.
In Turkey, Obama conspicuously failed to mention what had been one of his non-negotiable points of principle as a candidate: that the Armenian genocide of 1915, perpetrated by the dying Ottoman Empire, is a fact of history and not open to diplomatic reinterpretation. The term for what the Turkish government engages in is holocaust denial, and to see how badly Obama abased himself on this subject, I invite you to view this year-old video of Samantha Power, his once and current adviser, reassuring the Armenian-American community that the Democratic nominee would not go soft on speaking truth to Ankara.
Some of Obama’s flubs on “symbolism” were, I think, over-exaggerated. His infamous bow before King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was not an act of submission foreshadowing our nation’s thralldom to the Wahhabi kingdom, but rather a nervous faux pas on the part of a rookie statesman, who still dispenses gifts to foreign dignitaries as well as the first President Bush kept his lunch down in Japan, or the second metaphysically diagnosed Vladimir Putin in Slovenia.
As for the Chavez handshake, most native oppositionists to el caudillo’s reign of socialism with a moon face seemed not to sweat it overmuch. Some, such as the bloggers at Caracas Chronicles, noted that it’s impossible to completely isolate Chavez, and that the palm-press scrutinized round the hemisphere has not altered the ongoing U.S. relationship with Venezuela. Still, it would have been nice of Obama to inquire why it is that every high-profile electoral opponent of Chavez winds up in jail, exile, or under investigation for tax fraud. (These veins of Latin America have not been sufficiently opened.)
As for Obama’s decision to end travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans wishing to return home or to send money to relatives there, the rationale is a libertarian one, as Alvaro Vargas Llosa, who’s gone back and forth on the question himself, recently pointed out: “It is not acceptable for a government to abolish individual choice in matters of trade and travel. The only acceptable form of economic embargo is when citizens, not governments, decide not to do business with a dictatorship, be that of Burma, Zimbabwe or Cuba.” (It should also be noted that contact with well-fed expatriates during perestroika helped many Russians realize what they were missing beyond the Iron Curtain and very likely hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.) On foreign policy, Obama may not turn out to be a great or particularly distinguished president, but if his first benchmark evaluation is anything to judge by, he is clearly not the disastrous one that so many feared.