Grading Obama’s Foreign Policy

The editors at Foreign Policy magazine used the occasion of the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s election as president to ask a “a group of experts” to grade President Obama’s foreign policy performance.   I was honored to be among the graders.

My B-minus was exactly in line with the consensus:  “Obama scored only an average of a B-: five As, nine Bs, four Cs, and five Ds.”

President Barack Obama inherited two unpopular wars and a global financial crisis. Despite mostly continuing President George W. Bush’s policies, he’s rebooted America’s image in the world and avoided most of the landmines. His top-level foreign policy staff — from Vice President Joe Biden to National Security Advisor Jim Jones to Secretary of Defense Bob Gates to the State Department’s Anne-Marie Slaughter — is superb. While I seriously questioned his choice of Hillary Clinton to become secretary of state, she’s mostly been solid. That said, he’s made some serious missteps on the security front with Afghanistan and Iran, and his relationship with Europe is not nearly as strong as it should be, given the warmth with which his election was received.

Afghanistan: C-. Obama carried out his campaign pledge to send more troops and to put more emphasis on the war but he quickly lost confidence and now seems mired in a struggle over grand strategy. He fired a competent general to replace him with another, presumably to double-down on counterinsurgency, and turned around three months later to question his own general’s recommendations for carrying out the obvious implications of said strategy.

Europe: B. Obama came into office with a huge popularity boost and was viewed as a breath of fresh air after eight years of Bush. But he’s fumbled the “special relationship” with Britain and has raised serious doubts in Eastern Europe. See my recent article for a detailed explanation.

Iran: C+. Jim Jones’ pronouncement that we could live with a nuclear Iran was a welcome step down from the previous talk about it being “unacceptable.” Unfortunately, the situation has been largely bungled from there, with Obama having seemingly returned to his campaign trail Pollyannaish view of the power of chit-chat.

My colleague Shuja Nawaz, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, also gave him a B-minus.

President Barack Obama’s momentous election heralded a change in U.S. foreign policy and raised expectations of revolutionary developments around the globe. He certainly lifted the dialogue to a new and higher moral level and promised engagement. But progress has been evolutionary, not revolutionary, because U.S. policy is rooted in national interests that do not change dramatically with a change in the occupant of the White House. This has been difficult for people around the world to understand. Regarding the Middle East and the Muslim world in general, Obama’s rhetoric has resonated more abroad than at home. He must change the discussion at home, not just to ensure Israel’s security but also guarantee implementation of Palestinian rights within a tight time frame. On Iran and India, he missed an opportunity to give Richard Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, a larger canvas to ply his skills by handing over Iran to a separate envoy and ceding to India’s pressures to exclude that country from the important dialogue on Afghanistan. Its problems can only be solved by taking a regional approach and drawing in the major neighbors: India, Iran, Pakistan, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Central Asia, Russia, and China. Restricting Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan reduced his ability to move all the chess pieces in the game.

Also, in Afghanistan, there is no savvy civilian equivalent of Gen. Stanley McChrystal representing the transatlantic view and strengthening the hand of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry with his Afghan hosts. (Paging “Dr.” Ryan Crocker!) And no Afghan voice has been brought into the discussion of the Afghan strategy. There is still time to save the situation before domestic electoral agendas take over in 2010 and then again in 2011. America’s first “global president” who promised the world an impossible dream must strive to avoid settling for the politically possible. He inherited multiple chess games and is moving from crisis to crisis at home and abroad. So, how well has he done? As my high school principal in Rawalpindi, the Rev. “Paddy” Byrne, used to pronounce on most report cards: Needs Improvement. For his high aims but relatively slow results to date, one can give Obama an A for effort but only a C+ for promised actions to date. Overall score: B-. This is an interim grade. The spring semester might produce better results at home and perhaps abroad.

Feel free to provide your grades and analysis in the comments below.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. G.A.Phillips says:

    OK, lets see,
    dealing with Iran:F for failure, lots of dead brave young Iranians who got nothing from Obama as they gave him a chance to finally do something to gain much favor with their less then true believer new generation.

    Russia’s peowning of it’s former slave state:F, for failure, not to sure what he did here as a candidate but ill take that it was like every other big chance to do something positive that he has had so far , a total posturing failure.

    Iraq:C, for copying Bush.

    Afghanistan:D, for do something, anything!!!!!!

    North Kookrea:A, I got to give him this one for appeasing this crazy bastard long enough to get those two poor girls out of that poop hole.

    The war on man made disasters:F- for WTF?

    The war on the unborn foreign babies: A+, for getting that abortion funding signed in like the first second of his administration.

    The war on global capitalism C+, not sneaky enough, and for not figuring out a way to use the fairness doctrine to silence the opposition first.

    Grade in total I’ll give him a F+, and it would have closer to a D+ for unleashing the snipers upon the pirates but it’s not for not learning anything from this success.

    I focused on war because I hope his socialist, the one world government, lead by him agenda fails, so I won’t grade something I’m biased against:)

    Oh wait thats the war on global capitalism sorry:)

  2. Triumph says:

    The dude gets a negative-F for embracing totalitarianism home and abroad.

    At this rate, by next year Foreign Policy won’t be able to even publish as Obama continues to crack down on freedom.

    Those little freedoms we have left will have to be expressed in Kenyan since the attack on English is Obama’s next target.

    All we have to do is look at Hitler’s Germany for the playbook Obama is working from.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I think I’d give him an Incomplete at this point. The final grade might be an A or it might be an F. It depends on circumstances and follow-through.

    Let’s take the single instance of Iran. How would anybody rate President Obama’s handling of Iran at this point? If Iran detonates a nuclear weapon tomorrow, next week, or next month, his efforts would reasonably be graded F. But if that isn’t the case and real, provable, sustainable progress is made towards limiting Iran’s nuclear development, a B+ or even an A would be warranted.

    We’ll see, therefore Incomplete.

  4. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I think his dealing with Russia gives us an idea of how strong this Presidents foreign policy is. He gave up a shield designed to protect Europe from Iranian missiles because Putin did not want them and got nothing in return. What kind of foreign policy could you expect from a man who sat in a church for 20 years listening intently to a preacher preach hate of America? Joyner, you call yourself a political scientist? I guess you cannot recognize a red when you see one. How many communists does Obama have to have in his cabinet for you to believe he might have Marxist leanings? Go listen to the latest release of a speech by the right Rev. Wright. It was all over the net yesterday.

  5. Furhead says:

    I would go with Incomplete as well, as we all wait with bated breath for his Afghanistan decision. Force my hand, and a B- sounds about right. But I’m not sure why everybody’s marking the one-year anniversary of his election, rather than when he actually took office.

  6. Hmm…, does Guantanamo count as foreign policy?

    Incomplete is the corect response, but if forced I’d go more towards a C-. No successes I can point too. but no utter disasters yet, though they seem to be looming just over the horizon. Another further steps toward transnational progressivism will force this grade lower. IMHO, this is more serious in the long run than what happens in Afghanistan, but YMMV. Where James gives him a B for Europe, whatever goodwill there is hasn’t come from anything he’s done but just a sense of post Bush relief. The damage he’s doing to the special relationship with Great Britain would seem to disqualify him from a B altogether.

  7. Strangely, not a single mention of Honduras yet, where I’d give them a D-. The only reason he doesn’t get an F is because he succeeded in what he wanted to do, but the D- is because it is such a bad, bad, thing.

  8. PJens says:

    Incomplete seems to be a “hope” grade. Ask Honduras, Israel, Poland and the Dali Lama how well this administration is doing on foreign policy.

  9. Ron USA says:

    G.A.Phillips hits it right on the head, but I can add one more thought.

    Since when is it beneficial making other countries “like”? In fact, I would argue it could actually hurt us. Every decision I see this man make, gives something away without getting ANYTHING in return. How does this help us? How can you give him a B(anything). Hell, I wouldn’t even give him an ‘F’, how about ‘I’ for impeachment.