Obama’s Real Test Year

President Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, December 12, 2009
President Barack Obama speaks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House, December 12, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

Year’s end is near so journalists like to look back and beyond to what’s coming especially, it seems, for the Obama Administration. The president has had his fair share of “litmus tests” already: the overanalyzed “first hundred days” in office; his first foreign visits as head of state; the new Afghan war strategy; his Nobel Prize; and, lest we forget, health care reform. If it weren’t for the fact that Obama indeed has more on his plate than any president in recent history, the media would no doubt have made it appear so anyway.

Now there is talk that 2010 then will finally be the “real test year” for President Obama — except that this time the promise is uttered by eminent journalist Tom Ricks blogging for Foreign Policy. As it turns out some people in media are beginning to pay attention to the consequences of that quiet war in Yemen. Ricks quotes former Defense Department analyst John McCreary who knows that an American missile strike against Al Qaeda camps in South Yemen last December 17 killed at least one high-level terrorist leader along with several more of his gang. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni commander was able to escape however.

The attacks might give pause to the terrorist web posters and cause some analysts to rethink their assessment of the strength and determination of the US Administration. […] what comes next will be the true measure of the Administration, now that the year of attempted reconciliation initiatives is ending with little to show for it.

As The New York Times calls it, the United States have opened a whole new, “third, largely covert front against Al Qaeda.” The Pentagon is spending more than $70 million on Yemen over the next year and a half while CIA and Special Forces have begun training and equipping the Yemeni military and coast guard, all in all more than doubling previous military aid.

Both Ricks and McCreary seem to be of the opinion that the newfound interest in Yemen indicates a shift in White House policy away from “reconciliatory” efforts. The latter even declares that, “if the missile attacks are any indication, North Korea, Iran and others need to pay closer attention and not close the ledger just yet.”

While the effects of the little war in Yemen will no doubt be felt throughout the Middle East — and should certainly make Tehran think twice about its financing of terrorism — we for the moment feel safe to question whether Kim Jong-il cares anything about it. The same goes for the other “rogue states” remaining. As it is, the United States is still entranched in two full-blown Middle Eastern armed conflicts with no shortage of diplomatic anxiety between friends and foes to keep the White House occupied. To suggest that the Yemeni endeavor signals something of a new foreign policy approach seems rather premature.