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Has President Obama Lived Up To His Nobel Prize?

In the year since Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, work on the president's foreign policy agenda has been a hard slog, and many of his signature initiatives are a long way from being fulfilled.

President Obama with Middle East leaders i

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan on Sept. 1, the first day of this year's renewed peace talks in Washington, D.C. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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President Obama with Middle East leaders

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan on Sept. 1, the first day of this year's renewed peace talks in Washington, D.C.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

When it announced the award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made clear that it was recognizing the new American president's "vision," and his efforts to strengthen multilateral diplomacy — the unspoken corollary being that the U.S. was turning away from the unilateral approach of Obama's predecessor.

The message from the Norwegians and many other Europeans was, "Goodbye, George W. Bush. We're glad you're gone," says Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.  "But the issue is whether this president can achieve a success in foreign policy that convinces the skeptics and doubters that he has done something historic."

In the past year at least, analysts cite some policy successes, but they say the president has a long way to go on a variety of peacemaking efforts, ranging from America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Middle East peace process, to reducing the threat from nuclear weapons.

A Wartime President Spars With His Generals

Miller points out that Obama, like Woodrow Wilson, won the Peace Prize even though he is a wartime president. Obama kept his pledge to remove all combat troops from Iraq by the end of August, but he did so by re-purposing combat units as trainers and advisers, leaving some 50,000 American service members in the country.

Iraqi politicians are still negotiating to form a government, nearly eight months after national elections, and there's been a recent surge in insurgent violence.

In Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO forces, bolstered by a surge of 30,000 American troops, have finally begun an offensive designed to wrest the area around Kandahar from Taliban control, and there are rumors that the Afghan government is moving toward talks with Taliban leaders.

A newly published book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars, portrays the president as sparring with his military commanders but never getting the range of strategic options that he ordered those commanders to deliver.

In a Sept. 28 interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel, Woodward said that even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates failed to deliver on a promise to offer the president real strategic choices.

According to Woodward's account, the president said the commanders' range of options was unacceptable, and Gates acknowledged that the military establishment owed the president more choices.

"And the president never got it," Woodward said.

'A World Without Nuclear Weapons'

President Obama with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev i

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the signing of the new START treaty in Prague in April. The treaty must still be ratified by the U.S. Senate. Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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President Obama with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the signing of the new START treaty in Prague in April. The treaty must still be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

In the citation for Obama's award, the Nobel Prize committee said it "attached special importance to Obama's vision of, and work for, a world without nuclear weapons."

Joe Cirincione, president of the nuclear nonproliferation group The Ploughshares Fund, says: "Everything has been harder and gone slower than we had hoped, but he's made steady progress."

Cirincione says Obama has scored successes in several arenas of nuclear policy, notably the new START agreement with Russia to reduce nuclear warheads, missiles and launchers. But the treaty faces opposition in the Senate.

The treaty was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, but Republicans, led by GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, say it would leave the United States vulnerable to attack because it doesn't have strong enough provisions to modernize the country's existing arsenal of missiles.

Kyl and other Republicans haven't said how they'll vote on the treaty when it comes up after the November elections.  It will require 67 votes to be ratified in the Senate.

"Probably the president's biggest, most dramatic success has been the Nuclear Security Summit in April," Cirincione says.

A Russian soldier guards a ballistic missile i

A Russian soldier guards a model of a Topol Intercontinental ballistic missile during a training session near Moscow in April. The new START treaty aims to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and missiles. Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
A Russian soldier guards a ballistic missile

A Russian soldier guards a model of a Topol Intercontinental ballistic missile during a training session near Moscow in April. The new START treaty aims to limit U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads and missiles.

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

The summit brought together international leaders and got them to agree to a 4-year plan that the president said would secure all the world's nuclear weapons from terrorists.

But the heads of state did not include Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly because Israel was concerned that some of the participants would focus on Israel's unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Obama also has succeeded in getting the international community to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.  Cirincione says the latest international sections are biting Iran's financial sector, leading to "all kinds of rumors that the Iranians are making overtures to talk."

Danielle Pletka, who heads foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute, says the real measure of success with Iran is not whether the sanctions are tougher, but whether Iran has given up ambitions of becoming a nuclear weapons power.

"Have we made any progress?" she asks.  "Not really."

The fact that more countries have agreed to impose tougher sanctions on Iran, Pletka says, merely shows that Iran's behavior has gotten worse.

"The worse Iran is, the easier it is for us to get biting sanctions," she says, adding that that's not progress.

A Tenuous Start To Middle East Talks

The Arab-Israeli conflict is an area that has tested American presidents for six decades.

"Here's the place where Obama has the very best intentions, and he's obviously made some progress," says Middle East expert Juan Cole, "but he's kind of admitted that it's much harder than he thought it was going to be."

Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, says Obama waited too long to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas face-to-face in Washington.

Cole says Obama should have taken a personal hand in the process last year, rather than leave the legwork to Special Envoy George Mitchell.  The result, he says, was that the two sides didn't start face-to-face talks until shortly before an Israeli moratorium on construction in settlements was set to expire.

The moratorium ended Sept. 26, and talks are currently stalled as the U.S. tries to get an agreement that would renew the settlement moratorium.

"What we've seen is a historic regression," Pletka says.  "I think there are competing failures," including too big a role for the United States at the bargaining table, resulting in what she calls the "infantilization" of the two parties.

Mideast peace won't come, Pletka says, "because there's a great negotiator, but because the two sides really want to make peace based on the fact that they don't see a future in what they're doing."

But Cole says the power of the president is key.

"No special envoy has the clout that a president has. This is something a president would have to roll up his sleeves and work at two or three hours a day for several years," Cole says.

Now, he adds, Obama has lost some of the international popularity that gave him clout a year ago.

Difficult as it is, Aaron David Miller calls the Middle East peace process "the least hopeless of the panoply of issues that defines President Obama's world."  That, he says, "is a stunning commentary on the complexity of the world in which America and Barack Obama live."

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