The combination of continued population growth, the rumblings of global climate change and consistently increasing demands for all resources including energy, but also for water and land makes all of us particularly vulnerable to natural disasters like the one we have just witnessed. The tsunami should help demonstrate the import of investing in infrastructure and preparing for contingencies, but even doing these things will not be enough.
The events in Iraq and the relatively quiet response to President Obama’s recent speech on the subject suggest, not surprisingly, that Americans are experiencing a relatively acute case of Iraq fatigue. Few Americans who are not directly involved with the war effort seem interested or concerned about the “end” of the war there, but we probably should be paying more attention. The Obama administration has prioritized the war in Afghanistan as their most important foreign policy concern. Other issues such as Iran’s nuclear potential, new, renewed and failed peace efforts in the Middle East and a spate of natural disasters from Pakistan to Haiti have knocked Iraq out of the forefronts of the consciousness of those Americans who think about foreign policy, while the still battered economy has made foreign policy feel less important to most Americans.
The final withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq is being treated like something of a non-story. For years, withdrawing troops from Iraq was a central demand of the anti-war movement, and one of the issues that helped jump start Barack Obama’s presidential campaign back in 2007, but now that it is actually happening, there is little celebration, or even for that matter recognition. The major reason for this, of course, is that few people believe that the war is actually ending anytime soon. This is partially due to the 50,000 American troops which will remain in Iraq. These troops are allegedly non-combat troops, but there has been no clear explanation of what that means, particularly in a context like the current one in Iraq. It seems pretty unlikely that Iraqi insurgents will no longer target American troops because the only ones remaining are non-combatants; and it seems equally unlikely that these troops will retain their non-combat status if these types of attacks continue to occur.
Less than seven months after the Haiti earthquake, two other disasters have received far less global support and attention. The fire and heat related problems in Russia are not on the same scale as Haiti, but Pakistan may yet be of a similar scale. In both cases, the relative lack of international concern and sympathy, while not exactly surprising, is still notable. Neither of these incidents have made it to the front pages of American newspapers; public officials are not calling for helping the people of these two countries; and few ordinary people that do not have family or roots in Pakistan or Russia seem to be very concerned about these disasters.
Only two weeks after President Obama decided to expand the war in Afghanistan, their have been a several news stories describing how the U.S. alliance with Pakistan, a relationship without which success in Afghanistan is difficult to imagine, is frayed. Reports that Islamabad does not see eye-to-eye on the war with the U.S. are unfortunate, but reports that U.S. officials in Pakistan are facing obstacles and even harassment make the prospect of success in Afghanistan seem even more distant.
There were moments during President Obama's speech last night when if you closed your eyes, imagined the grammar a little mangled and a few words mispronounced, you could easily make the mistake of thinking you were listening to President Bush. Not only was the announced troop increase what one might have expected from the Bush administration, but much of the rationale for the decision was as well.
There’s also some truth to this. All countries, particularly from America’s point of view, have some strategic value. The problem with this approach is that if all countries have strategic importance, then no country has strategic importance and all countries are of equal import. Strategic value only has meaning if it is a relative term, and referring to a country as strategically important only means something if it is considered more or less strategic than other countries.
The major questions Obama faces with regards to cleaning up after President Bush are tactical and strategic–how to best wind down the war in Iraq, stabilize Pakistan, and staunch the global economic bleeding. There are, of course, also specific global hot spots where conflicts have been going on for decades, such as Kashmir and the Israel-Palestine conflict, where Obama will try to succeed where his predecessors have largely failed.
It was not that long ago, after all, when the Democratic Party seemed about to be torn apart due to a rift pitting affluent liberals and African Americans on one side and Latinos and working class whites on the other. There also was great concern over whether white women would still remain loyal to the party after the harsh treatment they perceived Hillary Clinton as facing during the 2008 primary season. All that, of course, seems very much like ancient history now.
Placing Obama's first 100 days in context is important because for the first 100 days, at least, the whole outweighs the sum of its parts. Not only have Obama's first 100 days been by far the best of any president of my lifetime, but they began not a day too soon. The country was reeling economically, directionless in foreign policy, losing credibility and support abroad and suffering a crisis of confidence at home when Obama became president. Obama has begun to turn all of this around. Moreover, even though Obama has not been a constant optimist in the White House he has restored confidence both abroad and domestically as most Americans believe our new president is, for the most part, leading us in the right directions. There have also been a range of less high profile issues including stem cell research, national service, allowing science back into policy and, frankly, bringing a sense of normalcy back to Washington, for which Obama also deserves credit. Ultimately, what stops Obama from getting an A is his approach to addressing finance and banking issues, so his final grade is A-.