Shadow Government
A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Obama’s 2010: Shadow Government looks back

WILL INBODEN As the end of the year approaches, along with it comes the ritual end of year evaluations as well as New Year’s resolutions. In that spirit, several Shadow Government contributors here offer our thoughts on the Obama administration’s foreign policies — specifically: 1. Advice for the administration in the new year, 2. Suggestions ...




As the end of the year approaches, along with it comes the ritual end of year evaluations as well as New Year’s resolutions. In that spirit, several Shadow Government contributors here offer our thoughts on the Obama administration’s foreign policies — specifically:

1. Advice for the administration in the new year,

2. Suggestions on what policies are working and should be continued, and

3. Suggestions on what policies aren’t working and should be consigned to the archives.

Advice: Seize the initiative. This is not about a specific policy but an overall posture. Two years since President Obama’s election, the question of an "Obama Doctrine" remains elusive, as the administration’s national security policy has mostly been reactive, focused on managing current challenges and crises. This inbox by itself is a substantial challenge to be sure, and one which the administration is handling with varying degrees of success (e.g. decently well with Iran and North Korea, with mixed results with Afghanistan and Iraq, and less well with Pakistan and Israel/Palestinian issues). Missing thus far, however, has been an overarching strategic framework. Hence my advice that the White House seize the initiative for its next two years, and develop a strategic doctrine or at least proactively take advantage of creating some new foreign policy opportunities. Implications for seizing the initiative include:

  • Don’t acquiesce in predictions of U.S. decline. The world needs responsible global leadership, and there remains no better candidate than the United States.
  • Establish principles, alliances, and institutions that will endure beyond this presidency.
  • Take the long view. Ignore annual global popularity surveys, and instead ask a question that President Bush told us to consider while on his NSC staff: "What policies should I adopt now as president that my successor’s successor will look back on with gratitude?"

What might seizing the initiative look like in practice? For specific policy ideas, perhaps a new alliance of democracies in Asia, or a new global free trade initiative, or reinvigorated transatlantic partnerships, or a new strategic outreach in a neglected region such as Latin America or Africa (including an American partnership with the likely new state in southern Sudan, as Andrew Natsios has suggested), or establishing a robust strategic framework for winning the war of ideas against jihadist ideology.

Continue: Rediscovery of the freedom agenda. After its initial woeful neglect of democracy and human rights promotion, earlier this year the Obama administration rediscovered — rhetorically at least — the importance of supporting freedom around the world. The White House should build on this, particularly with specific policies and with new resources. As events in just the past few weeks have shown, in places like Belarus, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, and China, the demands of citizens for their liberty remain embattled and in need of America support.

Drop: The "reset" with Russia. Now that New START has passed the Senate, and thus completes the centerpiece of the administration’s "reset" policy, it is time for a new, realistic look at Russia — which necessarily means a delete of the reset framework. The original reset framework assumed that U.S.-Russia relations could be put on a sustained positive trajectory based on shared interests and reciprocal good will. But as Bob Kagan wrote earlier this week, "relations with Moscow are about to grow more challenging," as serious issues including Russia’s ongoing occupation of Georgia, growing corruption and internal repression, and cynical ambivalence on Iran remain. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s reported description of Russia got it right: "An oligarchy run by the security services." Taking a fresh look at the United States’ Russia policy should include strengthening U.S. support for beleaguered Russian reformers, reaffirming U.S. commitments to our allies and partners in Russia’s border regions, and jettisoning unrealistic assumptions about shared interests. Ironically, such a reduction in expectations might well enable better cooperation in the areas where our interests do align.


Advice: Be as committed to seeing Iraq and Afghanistan through to success as the President was in pursuing health care "reform." President Obama secured his place in history with the passage of Obamacare. Whether it comes to be seen as a positive legacy like Social Security, or as an overreach and folly like Prohibition, it will always be seen as historic and as the president’s own. This was a policy war of choice, not of necessity. There were needful aspects of health care reform, but most of them fell out of the bill or got swamped by far more expensive and consequential optional items. Elections have consequences, and in this case it empowered Obama to doggedly pursue what he considered to be the right thing — and he showed he was willing to pay a huge electoral price, if necessary.

It is time for him to engage in a policy war of necessity, building a political coalition in support of prevailing in Iraq and Afghanistan. His policy moves in the next two years will likely prove decisive in determining whether U.S. forces leave in success or defeat. Until now, President Obama has not made war leadership a central priority of his administration, and he has devoted very little effort at all to the crucial task of mobilizing political/public support. It is time, past time, to devote the political capital to this effort.

Continue: President Obama and his team proved quite adept in passing New START. To be sure the treaty itself was only of secondary importance for national security. Indeed, the side deals on force modernization and missile defense wrung out of the administration by skeptical senators will likely prove far more consequential in the long run than the modest treaty provisions. Yet the orchestration of lobbying, arm-twisting, bipartisan outreaching, principled deal-making, and even somewhat hyperbolic policy-shilling — all of that amounted to an impressive effort culminating in what surely is the administration’s greatest national security accomplishment to date. If the administration devotes a similar effort to forging bipartisan support for the various wars under its command (see point above), it will be an even more impressive national security accomplishment.

Drop: The silly campaign boasting that "America is back" in Asia. The boast was always a bit absurd but it quickly became an embarrassment when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to skip regional meetings and postpone long-planned trips to attend to domestic political priorities. The boast also reflected a needless defensiveness on the administration’s part. The United States has pursued a common bipartisan grand strategy in Asia for over a decade now, with President George W. Bush building on President Bill Clinton’s initial efforts regarding China, India, and Japan, and now President Obama building on Bush’s initiatives. Rather than pretend to be offering a bold departure, why not make a virtue out of the truth and note that there are some areas where mainstream Democrats and mainstream Republicans can agree, and one of them is Asia? Both sides recognize that the United States is an Asia-Pacific power and the world will be a better place if the United States remains vitally engaged in this region. No need to pretend that the United States ever left, because it didn’t and it won’t.


Advice: From a trade perspective, it is remarkable to think how little has been accomplished in the first two years of the Obama presidency. When he took office, President Obama inherited an agenda that included stalled global trade talks (the Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations), three already-negotiated free trade agreements (South Korea, Colombia, and Panama), and a troubled trade relationship with China. Across all of these items, the only achievement approaching progress was the revision to the Korean free trade agreement, and that came at the very end of 2010. The revision left Ford and the United Auto Workers happier, but came at the expense of other sectors, such as pork producers.

Better late than never, but there were costs to the lost time. Free trade agreements that promised U.S. producers at least a period of privileged access to a trading partner’s market are now just offering the prospect of equal access, since our jilted partners went and negotiated agreements with other countries while the United States dallied. Frustration was already high with the lagging global trade talks; it has since mounted. What’s more, the repeated empty promises of the G-20 nations to conclude the Doha round undermined that group’s credibility.

The ineffectiveness of the G-20 was also revealed in the sad Seoul summit, in which China and Germany objected to any global rebalancing plan that pushed past platitudes. The Obama administration — Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in particular — deserves credit for putting forth a credible approach; it just didn’t seem to gain traction. As with trade liberalization, the administration might have been more credible had it led by example. In trade, it called for a new WTO agreement while condoning "Buy America" protectionism and showing that it would not spend the political capital to push through existing agreements. In international finance, it called for global rebalancing while dramatically increasing spending, creating a significant new entitlement program through its health care plans, and relegating any plans for fiscal restraint to a separate deficit commission (as opposed to using its own Office of Management and Budget).

So what happens when you defer serious action on the international economic front for a couple of years? Institutions (in this case the WTO) deteriorate, problems (resurgent global imbalances) fester and grow, and resolutions to address these issues soon may be undercut by new crises that demand attention.

Looking ahead to the rest of Obama’s term, my top candidate for major distracting crisis to come is the bubbling debt trouble in Europe. The leaders of the Euro nations have been working furiously to address problems as they pop up in Greece, then Ireland, then Portugal, with Spain and Belgium starting to simmer. But all of their remedies have done little more than buy time and, in some cases, allow the problems to grow. There are fundamental inconsistencies ripping the euro apart. When that happens, it will not simply be a matter of having to deal with currency exchange at the borders; it will likely involve a significant banking crisis. Those, it turns out, can be nasty.


Advice: There is something approaching a consensus on the challenges the United States faces today and will face in the future. These include the threats posed by Islamist extremists; nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states such as North Korea and Iran; and the rise of China. To the extent that the Obama administration confronts these head on, it will enjoy broad support.

Islamist extremism, Iran, and North Korea have consumed a substantial part of the administration’s time; Chinese military modernization has yet to receive the attention it deserves. The rise of China poses the most consequential challenge to U.S. leadership in the 21st century, but the U.S. military is in many ways ill-prepared to meet it. In an era in which Asia and the Pacific are of increasing importance, the U.S. Navy is the smallest it has been since before the United States entered World War I. In an era in which the ability to strike with precision at great distances is likely to play a larger role in warfare, the U.S. bomber force is smaller than it should be, and the Defense Department has yet to put forward a replacement for our aging bomber fleet.

This past summer, the bipartisan Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel offered a series of common-sense recommendations to bolster the U.S. force posture to meet these challenges. However, the administration has largely dismissed them, and in some cases, such as the report’s recommendation that the U.S. Navy be increased to a fleet of 346 ships, actually misrepresented what the commissioners said. It is time the administration begin taking Chinese military modernization seriously; if it does, its proposals will receive considerable bipartisan support.

Continue: Support for a strong military. Obama could have cut the defense budget upon assuming office, but he didn’t. And so far, he hasn’t succumbed to the temptation to fund dramatically expanded social spending at the expense of U.S. national security. Obama would be well advised to resist pressure from the left to cut defense spending. The United States is still fighting two wars, even if for political reasons the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge one of them (Iraq). Beyond the current conflicts, the United States faces the need to modernize its forces to deal with more sophisticated competitors, including China. The U.S. military has for three decades been living off the legacy of the Reagan defense buildup; it won’t be able to do so forever.

The administration should also maintain its commitment to achieving victory in Afghanistan. Despite a needlessly long and public review process, Obama adopted a basically sensible approach to the conflict, increasing the number of troops devoted to the war and redoubling efforts to train the Afghan National Army. Still, many problems remain, including the fact that the U.S. military continues to treat the mission of training and advising foreign militaries as a low priority. The Afghan "surge" has also revealed the limited ability of civilian national security organizations such as the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, to support wartime contingencies.

The biggest weakness of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, however, is limited political will and leadership in Washington. Insurgencies are won or lost as much in the capital of the counterinsurgent as they are on the battlefield. Obama can gain considerable support for the war in Afghanistan, but only if he does what he has only rarely been willing to do in his first two years in office: reach across the aisle to work with Republicans in Congress.

Drop: Deadlines. Obama committed a major strategic error by announcing a deadline for drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan in his December 2009 West Point Speech. Such a move may have reassured his political base, but it discomfited the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and America’s allies. Obama has wisely backed off that deadline, only to put in place another one.

Deadlines often make sense in diplomatic negotiations; less often are they wise in war. In Afghanistan, the Obama administration would do well to focus on progress toward achieving U.S. objectives, not an arbitrary timetable.

The administration should similarly drop its preoccupation with arms control. Obama came to office intending to move U.S.-Russian relations beyond mistrust and suspicion, but chose a curious way to do so: the resurrection of Cold War-style arms control agreements with detailed verification procedures that, by their very nature, actually tend to create mistrust and suspicion. However, the task of achieving even the modest New START agreement proved much more difficult than the administration foresaw — both in negotiations with the Russians and its ratification by the Senate.

In the wake of the Senate’s ratification of New START, some in the Obama administration will no doubt press to move on to more expansive agreements, perhaps involving the other nuclear powers. However, the administration would be well advised to declare victory on the arms control front and save its limited political capital for other, more important, undertakings.


Advice: President Obama should apply the lessons of the lame duck congressional session to his foreign policy. The last week of that session proved to be surprisingly successful for Obama: He was able to achieve some of what he wanted on the tax bill, and even more of what he wanted on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and New START. In all three cases, he could not have done so without the help of Republicans — and more than just the usual suspects from Maine.

There is an important lesson here that the president should apply to future national security and foreign policy issues in particular. In all three cases, the president was prepared to listen to, and attempted to accommodate, his Republican opposition: Partisanship, it turns out, can still be made to end at the water’s edge if the president is prepared to have a real dialogue with Republicans.

By extending the Bush administration’s tax cuts, of great importance to Republicans, the president was able to win over most members of the opposition to support a package that included the expansion of unemployment benefits. By winning the support of six former Republican secretaries of State, committing to nuclear weapons modernization, and at least attempting to back away from any linkage between the treaty and missile defense, he got nearly a dozen Republican senators to vote with the Democrats to ratify the treaty. And with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both arguing strongly for repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, eight Republican senators were convinced that their strong national security concerns did not prevent them from voting with the Democrats.

On the other hand, when Mr. Obama either refused to compromise, or let the Congressional Democrats have their way — the DREAM Act or the pork-laden appropriations bill, for example — he got nowhere.

The president can expect to face stiffer opposition on domestic issues as the Republican majority takes its seats in the House and a stronger minority does so in the Senate. On national security and foreign policy, however, he can expect to draw upon significant support, from both conservatives and moderates, as long as he is willing to take account of their concerns. It is already safe to say that as long as the president heeds the advice of his military leaders on Afghanistan, he will find the Republicans strongly in his corner — far more strongly, perhaps, than Democrats, especially the Nancy Pelosi-led House minority. And the same can apply to other national security issues as well; Republicans will always respect the views of the commander in chief, especially if those views truly reflect the advice and counsel of his senior military subordinates, and if those views reflect a national security agenda that is truly national, and not — as unfortunately has often been the case in the past — merely an extension of domestic partisan ideology.


Advice: Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama raised hopes for closer ties with hemispheric neighbors at his first Summit of the Americas, only to shift his gaze toward the Middle East. His western hemisphere policy now involves hazy development goals and needs a more forward-leaning engagement strategy with a tighter economic, security, and governance focus.

Still, Team Obama has made important contributions. Despite a slow start in expending funds (owing to congressional reporting requirements, florentine State Department procedures, and Mexico’s own capacity to receive support), the administration has advanced the Bush-era Mérida Initiative and moved it beyond its original 3-year scope. Its 2011 budget request contemplates $310 million more to help Mexico strengthen its rule of law, and tighten border security without harming legitimate trade and people flows — all necessary follow-ons.

Second, Obama realized that you couldn’t deal with drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America without clamping flows in the Caribbean — hence, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. It only requests $124 million in 2010-2011 timeframe, but it acknowledges that these small countries with micro economies and security budgets need help curbing this billion-dollar criminal enterprise.

Third, the president loosened travel and remittance restrictions toward Cuba to boost purposeful U.S.-Cuba contact that could fuel local demand for change. So far he has not supported lifting the trade embargo at a time when it would throw the repressive regime a life preserver or derail economic reforms that may finally go beyond permitting private snack vending on street corners.

On the flip side, bilateral trade pacts with Colombia and Panama have languished because of outdated concerns that no longer apply. In Colombia’s case, temporary trade preferences substitute for a bilateral accord. But these preferences only apply in one direction. They don’t promote free entry of goods into Colombia from U.S. exporters (bummer). While Washington dithers, China is poised to eat Uncle Sam’s lunch as an economic competitor in Latin America.

Then there is Haiti. After a brilliant earthquake recovery effort led by U.S. Southern Command and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the United States and other donors failed to press the Haitian government to get its act together. Though not really Washington’s fault, millions still lack permanent shelter and Haiti held a sloppy presidential election that may have lasting effects.

Despite Haiti’s ongoing crisis, a development approach made sense for most hemispheric neighbors maybe 20 years ago. Today, the region is more democratic, globalized, and capable of taking on leadership roles in the international community. Fewer neighbors require tutelage and aid. Market access and economic partnerships, are increasingly important. Cooperative defense against transnational crime and terror organizations is a priority, as is mutual support for better governance and stronger rule of law. For the Venezuelan state, whose leader seems to be trying to revive the Cold War, increased intelligence gathering is warranted concerning its extensive weapons purchases and links to Iran, North Korea, and Colombia’s FARC guerrillas.

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