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The Limits Of A Messy World: Rating Obama’s Foreign Policy Record

Has Nobel peace prize winner Obama’s foreign-policy agenda failed? Not entirely, as the big-think naiveté of his early presidency has given way to a practical search for individual victories.

President Obama mingles with U.S. Navy midshipmen (honorablegerman)
President Obama mingles with U.S. Navy midshipmen (honorablegerman)
Ansgar Graw

BERLIN – At the beginning, it was all about promises.

One day, a world without nuclear weapons – Barack Obama had barely moved into the White House when he promised that. Tensions with Russia would be taken care of with a push of the "reset" button. He would personally give new impetus to the Middle East peace talks. Obama extended a hand to the Muslim world in general, and Iran in particular. Iraq, Afghanistan, the rise of China: no challenge seemed too big for the young commander-in-chief. For every problem, there was a practical solution.

Three years after Obama took office, the talk is no longer about nuclear disarmament, but possible military strikes against Iran. Russia's accusations against the U.S. -- that the latter is enflaming the opposition in Russia -- is reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric. The Ice Age has hit the Middle East. There have been clear setbacks in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Some are even placing the whole global context in terms of the decline of the United States as a superpower, to be supplanted by China.

Has Nobel peace prize winner Barack Obama's foreign policy failed? There are areas where the 44th American president has very clearly failed, most notably in his Middle East policy. In his speech to the Muslim world delivered in Cairo in June 2009, Obama called on Israel to stop building settlements. But to put one side under pressure before discussions have even started contradicts every rule of diplomacy. Israel wasn't going to show up at the table having made a one-sided concession, and the Palestinians didn't want to be standing behind the starting position of the most powerful man in the world. The personal antipathy between Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu took care of the rest.

More reactive than proactive

Obama didn't come through the "Arab Spring" well either. As governments fell and doubts grew as to whether a better future was in store for the region, the President gave the impression of being more reactive than proactive. It was true with Tunisia, and it's true now with Syria.

Obama's "leading from behind" tactic was, however, successful in Libya. Its dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who had been a thorn in the side of U.S. presidents since Ronald Reagan, was brought down. It also has to be said that, in Egypt, Obama aligned with the revolutionaries early on.

The same success and failure along parallel tracks marks other areas of Obama's foreign policy. Moscow's aggressive noises toward Washington are an attempt by the Kremlin to pin internal problems on an external cause, but they are also linked to the American plan for a European missile-defense shield. Yet Obama's "reset" tactic aimed at reframing the relationship between the U.S. and Russia has had some positive effects, such as the ratification of the new bilateral START treaty to reduce and monitor each other's strategic nuclear weapons.

What's more, Moscow has admitted that Washington has been moving crucial supplies for troops in Afghanistan through Russia – a significant improvement over routing them through Pakistan.

Pakistan may become the enemy

Obama has failed in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The President temporarily tripled the number of troops in the Hindu Kush region. He made George W. Bush's Afghanistan war "his' war – which means that if the Taliban regain power in Kabul after troops leave, it will be his defeat.

Pakistan -- once a sort of wobbly U.S. ally -- shows signs of turning into a very certain enemy. Washington's decision to forge a strategic partnership with India, its arch-enemy, can be thanked for this development.

By withdrawing troops from Iraq in December, Obama was fulfilling a promise made by his predecessor. Baghdad's refusal of his plan to leave 3,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq, however, means that Iran is likely to soon have greater influence over the divided country than the U.S.

The blow to Al-Qaeda is a definite plus on Obama's foreign policy score. The taking out of Osama Bin Laden by Navy Seals in Pakistan – an operation personally approved by the President – as well as a significant increased use of drones against terrorists in the borders areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a blow to the Islamist terror network.

This tactic also explains why under Obama there have been no new inmates at Guantánamo (which he had promised to close two years ago): militants today are being killed on the spot, not taken into custody.

Still, without a doubt, Obama's biggest foreign policy trophy is the polishing up of the U.S. image abroad. He also built up U.S. presence in Japan, South Korea and Australia, making him – in his own words – the "first Pacific president." In Myanmar (Burma) his administration pushed through some notable reforms. The result is that supposedly mighty China finds itself geopolitically isolated in its own neighborhood.

In Europe, the "Obamamania" may have died down, but the current president has fueled little of the anti-Americanism so prevalent under George W. Bush. Many of his words about better times have collided with reality. But to his credit, he has adjusted his tone. And even if he hasn't managed to increase the status of the Western superpower in any significant way, he has still done well to defend U.S. interests. And in turbulent times such as these, putting up a good defense can be chalked up as success.

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Society

In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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