Juan Cole: Obama's foreign policy report card





Why can't the administration of President Barack Obama get the word out about its policy successes? President Obama campaigned on an ambitious platform of withdrawing from Iraq, engaging Iran on its nuclear program and persuading the Pakistani government to take on the Taliban and al-Qaida. Despite the charge by critics from both the right and the left in the wake of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize that he has accomplished little so far, in fact he has already set in motion significant change on several of these fronts -- despite the enormous domestic tasks that have inevitably preoccupied his administration. Yet you'd never hear about these successes from the mainstream media.

When Obama came into office in January, 142,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq, conducting regular patrols of the major cities. His Republican rivals were dead set against U.S. withdrawal on a strict timetable. He faced something close to an insurrection from some of his commanders in the field, such as Gen. Ray Odierno, who opposed a quick departure from Iraq. Moreover, Obama assumed the presidency at a time when Iran and the U.S. were virtually on a war footing and there had been no direct talks between the two countries on most of the major issues dividing them. In February, the government of Pakistan virtually ceded the Swat Valley and the Malakand Division to the Pakistani Taliban of Maulvi Fazlullah, allowing the imposition of the latter's fundamentalist version of Islamic law on residents, and Islamabad had no stomach for taking on the increasingly bold extremists.

Eight months later, it is a different world. While it is still early in his presidency, and there is too much work unfinished to give him an overall grade, it's already apparent he's outperforming his predecessor.

Iraq: B Obama has decisively won the argument over Iraq policy. Despite the massive bombings in Baghdad on Sunday -- the most deadly since 2007 -- the U.S. troop withdrawal is ahead of schedule and seems unlikely to be halted. One reason is that the security situation in Iraq, while shaky, did not deteriorate when U.S. troops ceased their urban patrols on June 30 (a date Iraqis celebrated as"Sovereignty Day"). Occasional big explosions obscure the reality of reduced guerrilla attacks. According to the Pentagon, civilian casualties have been steadily declining since late summer. Even John McCain said that Sunday's carnage should not delay the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq -- a 180-degree turn in policy for the former presidential candidate.

The process of U.S. disentanglement from Iraq has been gradual, generating no big headlines, no"Obama brings 22,000 troops out of Iraq, cuts war spending by $30 billion." But, in fact, troop levels are down to about 120,000 from 142,000 early this year, and spending on the war has fallen, from $180 billion in 2008 to $150 billion this year. Many things could still go wrong in Iraq, affecting the ability of the U.S. to meet the current timetable, but so far the Iraqi security forces are generally keeping order (there were horrific bombings when the U.S. was in control, too). He can be faulted for not working closely enough with the Nouri al-Maliki government to ease the transition, hence a grade of B instead of an A...

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