Questions the election did not answer

Questions the election did not answer

President Obama’s victory last night was decisive enough to spare the country weeks of litigation over provisional ballots. And it delays for at least four years the ceremony where we handed over the cyber-keys of Shadow Government to our friends across the aisle. Aside from that, it is hard to argue that the election decisively resolved the question of where the country should go for the next four years.

As numerous people observed, after years of campaigning and some $2 billion dollars of campaign-related expenditures, the country ended up about where it was in 2010: the reins of government split between the two parties, an electorate narrowly and bitterly divided with neither side apparently capable of empathizing with the other side, and with no apparent national consensus on the big issues facing the country. The Democrats clearly have the whip hand, but does anyone seriously believe that President Obama received a strong mandate on key policy issues?

This applies especially to the foreign policy and national security issues near and dear to the hearts of Shadow Government. What did the voters say about the following key decisions President Obama must make in the coming six months:

  • Should the United States press for a U.N. mandate to intervene in Syria’s bloody civil war?
  • Should the United States lead a coalition (from in front or from behind) on Syria with or without a U.N. mandate?
  • Given declining leverage in the region, how can the United States mitigate the damage of the spiraling sectarian warfare in the Middle East?
  • How involved should the United States be in an intervention in Mali?
  • Beyond the obvious steps of hunting and bringing to justice the terrorists who carried out the Benghazi attack, how should the United States deal with a Libya that is spiraling towards chaos?
  • What is the worst deal we can live with on the Iranian nuclear program? Should we surrender redlines regarding enrichment that all Administrations have insisted on? What should we do if that "worst deal" is still not good enough to satisfy the Iranians? Is a military strike that only delays an Iranian nuclear program worse than learning to live with a nuclear Iran?
  • How should the United States manage relations with partners like Pakistan and Egypt, who are too dangerous to fail and apparently too frail to ensure our interests and values?
  • What, if anything, can and should the United States do if the eurozone inches towards a collapse?
  • If China’s rocky leadership transition produces spikes in hyper-nationalism and adventurism, can we simultaneously reassure our allies and partners in Asia without triggering escalation spirals?

If you expand the horizon to encompass the full remaining term of the Obama administration, the list of foreign policy and national security challenges gets even more daunting:

  • How can the United States repair a fraying coalition in support of the war against terrorist networks, especially when we increasingly rely on a tool the world increasingly abhors: drone strikes?
  • Is it possible to nudge Iraq back onto the positive trajectory it was four years ago or is that opportunity lost for good and, if so, how can we mitigate the damage?
  • Should the administration honor its apparent campaign promise to abandon Afghanistan completely in 2014, or should it proceed with what had been its policy until very recently — negotiating a Status of Forces agreement that provides for a sizable stay-behind presence?
  • How can the United States adequately resource the "pivot" to Asia without either restoring some of the promised defense cuts or pursuing deep and painful cuts to military pay and compensation?
  • How can the administration repair the lost trust across the civil-military divide?

And so on….

What all of these questions have in common is that on each of them the Obama campaign avoided presenting a clear set of proposed answers and so received from the electorate no clear guidance.

In fact, to the extent that foreign policy was discussed, it seemed to devolve into scorched earth attacks on Romney and the pedigree of his advisors or unqualified defenses of a caricatured version of the last four years.

Privately, my friends in the administration would admit to mistakes but publicly the campaign refused any such candor. When pressed, my friends would claim that they were simply adopting a page from the Bush 2004 playbook, implying that they, too, would do serious mid-course corrections as needed once they had secured a second term.

I hope so and, if so, there should be plenty of opportunity for those of us in the cheap seats to applaud the administration and to work to repair areas of bipartisan consensus.

Of course, those of us in the cheap seats have plenty of other work to do or we might be buying a lifetime lease on the bench. The campaign exposed some divisive internal Republican debates on America’s role in the world, and perhaps Shadow Government can be a place where that debate is resolved in a compelling and coalition-expanding way.