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Outreach, Afghanistan Dominate First Year of Obama Foreign Policy

President Obama at Forbidden City in Beijing
President Obama at Forbidden City in Beijing

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President Obama promised a new era in U.S. international engagement and dispatched special envoys to tackle key foreign policy problems during the first year of his administration. But the year may best be remembered for marathon White House consultations that led to an early December decision to boost the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.

From the outset, Mr. Obama  and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton promised a more conciliatory foreign policy.  

Speaking to reporters after she was nominated as Washington's top diplomat, Clinton explained how the administration's foreign policy would differ from that of outgoing President George W. Bush.

"We know our security, our values, and our interests cannot be protected and advanced by force alone. Nor, indeed, by Americans alone. We must pursue vigorous diplomacy using all the tools we can muster to build a future with more partners and fewer adversaries," she said. 

Mr. Obama and Secretary Clinton named seasoned foreign policy envoys to tackle tough issues. Richard Holbrooke became the special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell became the special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The administration became a full participant for the first time in big-power contacts with Iran on its nuclear program and sent envoy Stephen Bosworth to North Korea in December to talk about re-starting talks on dismantling the country's nuclear program.   But there was no visible progress with either country. 

Mitchell made multiple trips to the Middle East to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

But that bid was also unsuccessful. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a total freeze on Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, a Palestinian demand.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell traveled to Burma.  After the visit, Burma's military rulers made conciliatory gestures to detained Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi but she is still under house arrest.

The unreciprocated outreach drew criticism from conservatives, who accused the new President of being naïve.

Former Reagan administration official Richard Perle was especially critical of outreach to Iran at a time when Tehran was cracking down on protesters and opposition leaders.

"When you go repeatedly to Iran, which is proceeding at a pace to develop its nuclear weapons, which continues to support terrorism in a number of places and destabilizes the Middle East region, when you go repeatedly to Iran - by the way as it brutalizes its own citizens - you eventually begin to send a message," he said.

Mr. Obama stressed, during the presidential campaign, that he had opposed the Iraq war.

But as president, he alienated some core supporters with his decision, in December, to boost U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan.

That decision followed a long policy review criticized by former Vice President Dick Cheney as "dithering."

The President answered critics in a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "Instead, the review has allowed me to ask the hard questions and to explore all the different options. And as Commander-in-Chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," he said.

Mr. Obama's handling of the overthrow of elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya got negative or incomplete grades from the experts. 

At year's end, Mr. Zelaya was still not restored to power despite initial U.S. demands.

Finally, the President's gesture on climate change at the Copenhagen conference in December did not produce the deal environmentalists were hoping for.

But many analysts credit Mr. Obama with taking on tough issues.

"I think this President deserves extra credit for the degree of difficulty of what he's taken on. The big question for me is whether his governing tenacity will match the rhetorical audacity of his word,"  said Will Marshall, who is with Washington's Progressive Policy Institute.

Secretary Clinton traveled the globe to mend frayed relationships, although statements she made in Pakistan, that criticized the country's commitment to battling militants, alienated many there.

She advocated a new strategy of "smart power" in  which developmental aid is to become a central pillar of U.S. foreign policy, on a par with military leverage and diplomacy.

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