B-

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 25, 2009

That’s Peter Feaver’s grade for Barack Obama when it comes to the conduct of foreign policy over the first 100 days “the equivalent, in these grade-inflated days, of the old ‘gentleman’s C,’” as Feaver puts it. I am less interested in a letter grade–it is much to early to hand them out–than I am in the emerging shape of the Administration’s foreign policy in terms of style and substance. As Feaver puts it,

On the major issues that required real policy decisions, Obama has largely continued the Bush policy. I defy someone to identify how the Af-Pak decision was substantially different from the trajectory that the Bush team was on. It was sold with different rhetoric, but on policy, it was the same. Same policy, different letterhead.

The Iraq policy is also more similar than not, at least in terms of what Obama has done thus far (embrace the Status of Forces Agreement and stiff the “get out of Iraq now” caucus). The real test for him will come in June if, as seems possible, General Odierno recommends sliding the June 2009 deadline for getting U.S. troops out of the cities a bit in order not to precipitate a collapse in Mosul (and perhaps elsewhere).

I can understand a grade appeal on the other “war on terror” policies. It seems to me that for the most part, President Obama is looking for as much stylistic/atmospheric/rhetorical difference as he can spin, but is keeping the main elements of the Bush policy in tact. He hasn’t even closed Gitmo yet; he is just promising to do so in the future.

[. . .]

It reminds me very much of a student who “borrows” another person’s paper, changes the font, reformats the text, tweaks the acknowledgements, and trims it here and there before handing it in as his own work. Of course, in governing, unlike in academia, passing off other people’s work as your own is both acceptable and, at times, laudatory. The off-putting aspect is the pettiness of criticizing the very people whose work you are emulating.

This critique fits in with the critiques offered by a number of people who have examined the Administration’s foreign policy; see, for example, this article stating that while Obama’s tone on foreign policy differs from that of the Bush Administration, the substance is the same. Maybe it is unreasonable to expect that things would change so rapidly in 100 days, but the telling thing from both Feaver and the New York Times story is that the Obama Administration has, in fact, tried rather little on the foreign policy front in terms of differing from the Bush Administration when it comes to substantive issues. About the only place where there appears to be a serious substantive difference is in the realm of Russian-American relations. The Bush Administration resisted the Russians’ efforts to take the relationship back to Cold War levels by fighting against the Russian tendency to make bilateral arms control discussions the centerpiece of the Russian-American relationship. By contrast, the Obama Administration has acceded to Russian demands that there be more attention paid to bilateral arms control issues, while at the same time allowing the Russians to divert international attention from North Korea’s and Iran’s efforts to create nuclear weapons programs of their own.

A lot of people, by the way, are worried about this particular development in Russian-American relations. And they are right to be. Perhaps the real problem with the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign policy is that in many ways, it is not imitating the Bush Administration enough.

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