Eacho on Obama’s First Year

The U.S. Ambassador to Austria takes stock of the Obama administration’s performance, and where America is heading

Ambassador Eacho socializes at Webster after his talk on Obama, Jan. 25 | Photo: David Reali

The most heralded U.S. leader in decades has completed his first year in office – and many have been put to the task of assessing his progress; indeed, to offer an appraisal of the “change” that has been delivered so far. U.S. Ambassador William Eacho did exactly that in a speech to students and faculty at Webster University Vienna given on Jan. 25. “The U.S. brand is back,” he asserted, referring to an apparent upsurge in American international appeal. Eacho stressed that, while there is still a grievous amount to be done, there has been a paradigm shift in U.S. policy, one that will benefit both the United States and the international community.

Eacho addressed a wide variety of political issues, and stated that the Obama administration has acted “very decisively,” tackling a myriad of pressing and contentious tribulations. As a Harvard alum and veteran businessman, Eacho was particularly candid about Obama’s successes in combating the economic crisis; however, he did not shy away from questions on Afghanistan, Iran or the Israel/Palestine conflict. His basic conclusion? Obama is doing everything he can. Forced to perform a kind of political triage, the administration engaged the most critical cases and faired well. For 2009, the priorities were the economy, healthcare and Afghanistan. These issues were not chosen, but rather manifested (and in some cases were inherited), resulting in the necessity to deal with them.

As a political appointee – and no doubt a genuine Obama believer – Eacho towed the administration’s line to a large extent. He was particularly adept at invoking quotes from a plethora of instant-classic Obama speeches. He referred to “systemic failures” (now becoming an administration favorite), and was quick to affirm the righteousness of Obama’s policies in juxtaposition with Bush’s.

But ultimately, Eacho was sincere – he believes in the administration, but made no attempt to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes about what has still been left undone. This assessment has become the general interpretation – that the Obama administration has completed an acceptably so-so first year. Except for the extreme Right (and some on the extreme Left), most commentators are concluding that Obama’s presidency thus far has yielded mixed results – some good, some not so good. This is not too bad for a president known for a seemingly endless list of grandiose campaign promises. The Pulitzer Prize-winning polling project PolitiFact has estimated that, out of 503 campaign promises, 91 have been kept and 275 are in the works, while 87 are stalled and 15 have been broken.

The economic crisis seems to have slowed, and while the U.S. economy is still in recession, vital reform is underway and indeed, it could have been much worse. More interesting perhaps, is Eacho’s declaration that “the era of Laissez-faire is over.” This is an administration more comfortable with extensive oversight and government regulations than the U.S. has seen in years, but with the colossal failure of deregulation and the Republicans fresh out of ideas, Eacho asserts that even big businesses are getting on board: “Businesses need a cost competitive system.” This includes the reformation of healthcare. He attributes resistance to a nationalized healthcare system to the “American tradition of limited government.”

Globally, Obama has been met with high spirits and praise – this is no doubt a result of his radical departure from Bush’s perceived arrogance, but it is also reinforced by policy. His commitment to multilateralism is refreshing for the shunned allies of the Bush years. The EU, UN, WTO and IMF are all organizations that Eacho stressed were important outlets for a U.S. foreign policy committed to a “stable, level playing field.” This, he said, was evident by U.S. cooperation at the recent G20 Summit that resulted in a 1.1 trillion dollar rescue package for developing countries and a desire to triple the resources of the IMF.

Regarding the recent Copenhagen climate change conference, Eacho was confident that the “glass was half full,” saying that the accord, though not binding, could become the basis for a legal agreement in the future. Indeed, despite the lack of success legally, Copenhagen was significant for two reasons: one, it assigned part of the burden to developing countries such as China and India, and two, it illustrated a U.S. president who is serious (at least markedly more serious than his predecessors) about climate change. The reasons are related, says Eacho, because the BRIC countries are hefty contributors to global emissions; the fact that they were not required to share some of the responsibility in the Kyoto Agreement was the U.S.’s greatest criticism of the accord. To put it in business terms, Eacho said that the BRICs “already have a labor-cost advantage…so should they have an energy-cost advantage too?”

Regarding the Iraq and Afghan wars, Obama has undoubtedly kept his word. He is “responsibly ending” the Iraq War, with U.S. forces successfully adhering to their withdrawal schedule. After months of deliberation, Obama decided to commit 30,000 more troops to the Afghan War – a conflict he has expressed his commitment to on the campaign trail. The success of the war remains to be seen, however, NATO’s recent commitment to provide 7,000 additional troops is a victory of a different sort – it is proof that when your allies feel that you view them as partners and approach them with respect, they are much more willing to cooperate. This slow but steady redemption of America’s standing in the world might be Obama’s greatest success so far.

This issue of Iran and nuclear proliferation is a topic Obama has been highly criticized for – many feel that his open approach has caused the U.S. to be misled by the Iranians, who are growing increasingly defiant, as opposed to more cooperative, as Obama predicted. “We thought we had a deal on Oct. 1,” Eacho said, referring to the recent agreement reached at the IAEA, which Iran subsequently backed out of. “It’s very hard for us to read the Iranians, quite honestly.” After early hopes for a diplomatic resolution, no high level talks have taken place, and Iran is acting more audaciously than ever.

Another arena where we have seen the Obama administration stumble is the Israel/Palestine conflict. Pledging to take a more even-handed approach to the conflict, Obama has stood by helplessly as Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Palestinian leadership acted provocatively, further perpetuating the distrust between them and resulting in increasingly slim chances for negotiations in the near future. The frustration is apparent: “neither of them seem to want to do what’s in their best interest,” vented Eacho. He went on to express his concern that American advice is falling on deaf ears, and – interestingly, echoing many scholars – stating that Israel has a serious demographic problem that should be motivating them to more actively pursue a final status agreement. Israel, he asserted, needs to ask itself at some point, “do we want to survive or not?” Unfortunately, for now the administration seems hopelessly inept at dealing with the protracted conflict.

The ambassador further stressed a strong, renewed partnership with the European Union. Obama has maintained a much warmer relationship with EU heavyweights like France and Germany than his predecessor – something Eacho sees as continuing unimpeded. Regarding the continuing debate over Turkey’s EU candidacy, Eacho said plainly, “that’s a European decision.” This is another departure from the Bush administration’s approach, which was heavily in favor of Turkey’s admission. The ambassador did offer his opinion, stating that Turkey’s admission would “strengthen the EU” and that “the process is good for Turkey.”

Addressing relations with Austria, Eacho said Austria has been a great partner in global challenges, particularly climate change. Additionally, he stated that the U.S. and Austria “view the world through the same prism of values,” adding that Austria has been a valuable member of the UN Security Council. However, there are still disagreements over sanctions against Iran, which Austria is apprehensive of, but which Eacho maintains are necessary, stating, “we’ve done everything we can do.” The debate over Afghanistan is another point of departure, with the ambassador telling The Vienna Review that, while the administration appreciates the current contribution, with countries like Estonia, Romania and Albania contributing more, the U.S. would “appreciate a greater commitment.” Nonetheless, Austro-American relations remain strong and healthy.

Predictably, any American president is bound to have a copious amount of issues, problems and crises to deal with. Obama inherited a particularly daunting set: two wars, a recession and a discredited America. With one year down and three-to-seven to go, Obama and his cabinet have time to take on more from the world’s pile of problems. In many ways, the issues that took up much of the administration’s year are still not resolved, and new ones will arise. But they have made an auspicious enough start; many problems that were tackled with Obama’s acceding idealism yielded failures that served as a reality check. But despite setbacks, the Obama administration has had successes, and with an exceedingly determined and optimistic approach, there could be more to come.

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