Friday, 15 January 2010

15 January 2010

WASHINGTON DC -- If you were giving Barack Obama an examination grade for his foreign policy record during his first 12 months as US president, what would you decide on? 75 per cent? 85 per cent? Fail?

It’s a question someone put to our panel of foreign policy experts here in Washington after a special edition of The World Tonight broadcast last night. (It’s still available via Listen Again on the website if you missed it. And there’s a longer version, including questions from an invited audience, going out on BBC World Service at 6pm GMT tomorrow, Saturday.)

We were last here just over a year ago, a few weeks before the Obama inauguration, when no one yet knew what kind of a President he’d turn out to be. A year on, it should be possible to start making a judgement.

There was a much quoted saying during the Obama campaign, whenever people marvelled at his oratorical skills: “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.” And there’s certainly been no shortage of hard decision-making for the new President over the past 12 months.

Before the election, he said he’d pull US troops out of Iraq – and he still says that by August of this year, all combat troops will be gone.

He said he’d shut down the military detention base for terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay – and sure enough, as soon as he took office, he ordered that it should be shut within 12 months. It’s still open.

He said he’d reach out to Iran to engage them in meaningful negotiations about their nuclear programme. He reached out, but Tehran didn’t respond. There are no meaningful negotiations.

He said he’d put real effort into reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process. Not much success there, either.

And as for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, well, Copenhagen has been and gone, and you know what happened there.

Our panel of analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace were divided about how big a shift there’s really been in US foreign policy since Barack Obama took office. Sure, there’s been a shift in style, but with a few exceptions, the consensus seems to be that continuity is the name of the game.

One member of our audience wanted to know why Obama, this son of a Kenyan father, hasn’t done more to engage the US in Africa? To which the response was: how many hours are there in a day? He just can’t do everything.

And then we discussed the dogs that didn’t bark. The global banking system did not collapse during 2009; and the US – still the motor that drives the global economy – did not plunge into depression. Presidents don’t get much credit for things that don’t happen – but Obama’s supporters argue that he played a major role in preventing an even bigger global economic and financial disaster.

As for those examination grades, our panel of analysts gave him between 75 per cent and 95 per cent, with one unmarked paper on the grounds that after just one year, he has still far from completed his assignment.

What would you award him?

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