Like almost everybody else, I’ve spent much of the past year criticizing Barack Obama, second-guessing many of his decisions, finding fault with the incompetence of some of his appointees. Perhaps it sounds peculiar, then, but when I look back on the year as a whole, I find that I am nevertheless still inclined to withhold judgment. Though his presidency has not so far contained a string of victories, it cannot be characterized as a chain of defeats and disasters, either. Far stranger is the fact that in foreign policy, the field I watch most closely, nothing truly radical has happened at all. Despite the dramatic circumstances in which Obama came to power—in the wake of an extraordinary election campaign, a stock market crash, a sharp recession—as of this writing, there has been no crash change of policy, no parallel to FDR’s famous “100 days.” It is far more accurate to say that the President has executed a series of opening moves, and that we are still a long way from knowing how the endgame will turn out.
This is particularly clear in international affairs, where Obama has indeed introduced a new mood and atmosphere, but—first impressions to the contrary—has not yet brought about any profound changes in practice. Despite what has been written about his implicit pacifism and dislike of foreign military adventures, he has not yet altered U.S. policy in Iraq in any noticeable way: The American presence is slowly shrinking, but that was happening already. Despite his very public indecision about the Afghan conflict, he spent 2009 quietly sending more troops there. This may not be the “surge” that some think necessary, but it doesn’t represent a real change of tactics, either. Through Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, the Administration has also begun to speak differently about Pakistan, a country which is now treated as part of the problem rather than as a loyal ally. This, too, was a change that began under the previous Administration.
In the case of Iran, Obama’s new rhetoric has seemed more dramatic, largely because events in Iran have been more dramatic. He extended a hand to the Iranian regime, offered to meet with its leaders and treated the emergence of an unexpectedly vibrant opposition with very distinct coolness—not only in contrast to what George W. Bush would have done, but probably in contrast to what might have been expected of Bill Clinton. To date, there has not been a real response from the Iranians, probably because there cannot be: A regime that fears for its own legitimacy, not to speak of its survival, is not in a position to make any dramatic policy changes, either in the direction of abandoning its nuclear policy or in the direction of rejecting the U.S. offer of negotiations altogether.
Iran is thus a stalemate, and Iranian leaders are playing for time. But Iran was a stalemate and the Iranian leaders were playing for time at the end of the Bush presidency, too. So, pending the development of the post-June 12 opposition movement, I’m not sure what has actually changed. The same is true of North Korea, which responded to an initial opening with threats and hysteria—the same kinds of threats and hysteria we might have heard during the Clinton or Bush eras as well. For that matter, the same is true of Russia. The “reset button” has been pushed, a Moscow summit has been held, everyone is hoping Medvedev will gain in stature, and, since he probably won’t, we are back to where we started. I realize the Russians appear to have promised to help the Administration put pressure on Iran, but I will believe it when I see it. I certainly did not see it during Secretary Clinton’s October visit to Russia.
Ironically, when I look back on international affairs over the first year of the Obama presidency, I can see only one actual policy change (as opposed to a rhetorical change) of any significance: The decision to alter the Bush Administration’s plans for missile defense in Europe. I say “ironically” here because I don’t think European politics is something that especially interests the President, and I don’t think the missile defense system has ever been anybody’s genuine priority. The Bush Administration misread the likely Russian reaction to its deployment, and then dragged out the negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic far longer than necessary. The Obama Administration bungled the announcement of the change, causing even more unnecessary consternation. And thus once again we return to the status quo: An Administration with other priorities ignores Central European sensibilities in order to play bigger games with Russia and Iran.
None of which is to say that Barack Obama isn’t eventually going to be a very different sort of President, just that he isn’t that different yet. Given the small-c conservatism of the past year, it’s impossible not to wonder whether he will not wind up becoming a victim of his own rhetoric. He sounds different, and thus attracts both very high hopes from his supporters and furious criticism from his opponents. But he doesn’t act different, and thus he ultimately might disappoint his supporters, too. In many areas, the status quo is not such a bad place to be, considering plausible alternatives. But that’s not what was promised in November 2008.