Shadow Government

The one-year review: The problem with thinking short-term

By Michael Singh One lesson of the financial crisis is that short-termism has plagued U.S. business; too often it plagues U.S. politics and policy as well. The Obama administration has been both victim and perpetrator of this offense. On the one hand, the Obama administration (like most new administrations) has been the target of the ...

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By Michael Singh

One lesson of the financial crisis is that short-termism has plagued U.S. business; too often it plagues U.S. politics and policy as well. The Obama administration has been both victim and perpetrator of this offense. On the one hand, the Obama administration (like most new administrations) has been the target of the short-term thinking prevalent in political and media circles, which judges progress in weeks and months, even against problems which have persisted for decades or longer. On the other hand, the administration itself has exacerbated this problem by raising expectations that many of America’s problems in the world could be solved with a simple shift in tactics, and to make matters worse often exaggerated its own tactical differences from its predecessors.

This latter tendency seems to flow from one of this administration’s most curious characteristics — its fixation on the past. When you are in government, your critics typically want to focus on the past, picking apart your record to find failures or inconsistencies, while you would rather focus on your plans for the future. As citizens, this is precisely what we want of our officials — while as a society we may want — and need — to grapple with our past, we need policymakers to glean what lessons they can from it and look forward. After all, we are powerless to change the past, and duty-bound to shape the future. Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems caught in the past, continuing one year after the 2008 election to define itself by its repudiation of predecessors’ policies rather than a clear articulation of its own vision for the future.

In reviewing the Obama administration’s foreign policy record, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere, one finds things to criticize as well as to commend. But more important than what they have done thus far is what they will do next. The administration has poorly handled the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is at a standstill if not moving backwards.  Rather than simply pressing for a quick resumption of negotiations, the administration will need to think creatively about how to set the right regional and local context for talks and how to address the interests underlying the parties’ seemingly rigid and incompatible positions. On the Iran nuclear issue, while one can dispute various tactical decisions it has made, the administration is to be commended for its decision to shift from its early near-exclusive focus on engagement to a policy that mixes pressure and negotiations. But again the crucial question is prospective; while the Obama administration has convincingly asserted its commitment to diplomacy, it has been relatively reticent about what it might do if diplomacy fails to halt Iran’s nuclear march.

Because the Obama administration has yet to confront these big questions — and has not moved to answer them preemptively, as would be useful in the Iran case — we have plenty of information about its tactics, but its strategies have yet to come into focus. In two areas where it has made a sharp strategic break from the previous administration, its policy is best characterized, ironically, not as one of engagement but of disengagement. These are the promotion of human rights and democracy, on which this administration has been virtually silent, and trade, where protectionism has resurfaced and the promotion of free trade has ebbed. The United States stands for liberty, and when we stray from our values we succumb to the sort of short-term thinking for which we are bound to pay a hefty long-term price.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

Michael Singh is managing director at the Washington Institute. He was senior director for Middle East affairs at the U.S. National Security Council from from 2005 to 2008. @MichaelSinghDC

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