Shadow Government

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

Obama in retreat

Reports indicate that President Obama’s budget address today will offer rhetorical support and perhaps some specific ideas for reducing the deficit. This is a head-snapping reversal from two years ago, when the White House added another $787 billion to the debt with its ill-advised stimulus bill, and from one year ago, when the White House ...

By , the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Reports indicate that President Obama's budget address today will offer rhetorical support and perhaps some specific ideas for reducing the deficit. This is a head-snapping reversal from two years ago, when the White House added another $787 billion to the debt with its ill-advised stimulus bill, and from one year ago, when the White House dogmatically forged ahead with a health care plan that somehow managed the unholy trifecta of being unpopular, ineffective, and exorbitantly expensive. It is even a brazen u-turn from two months ago, when the White House released its 2012 budget proposal that forecast budget deficits and mounting debt as far as the red ink on the OMB charts could reach. In short, last week's budget deal and today's speech mark an administration in retreat -- trying to undo the damage done during their first two years in office in a series of self-inflicted wounds.

While this week's headlines are about the domestic politics of the budget crisis, this pattern of the administration now struggling to correct the mistakes of its first two years appears across much of its foreign policy as well. Consider:

After dismissing democracy promotion as a strategic priority in the Middle East and even slashing the budget for democracy programs in Egypt, the White House was caught off guard by the Arab Spring and is still struggling to keep pace with the change sweeping the region; After elevating multilateralism from a prudential tactic to a dogmatic principle where American leadership takes a back seat, the administration now finds itself engaged in another Middle Eastern war with a coalition of divided leadership and misaligned means and ends; After misconstruing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the strategic linchpin of the entire Middle East, and an imbalanced fixation on a freeze in Israeli settlement activity as the essential precondition to progress, the White House now finds itself back at square one. And they know they have a problem on their policy when even John Kerry dismisses it as a "wasted...year and a half." After lambasting military tribunals and the Bush administration's counter-terrorism legal apparatus, the administration loses two years before reversing itself and deciding to try 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Muhammed before a military tribunal; After publicly dismissing human rights concerns in China and signaling to Beijing that American diplomatic advocacy on human rights need not be taken seriously, the Administration now belatedly takes notice that China is in the midst of its worst crackdown on dissidents in at least three years; After downplaying -- and sometimes opposing -- free trade agreements with American partner nations, the administration now seems to realize the economic and diplomatic costs of this negligence, and is struggling to bring important free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama across the finish line. Not to mention scrambling to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership before hosting the APEC summit later this year; After giving Hugo Chavez a presidential hug, the administration two years later still finds the Venezuelan thug fomenting mischief and undermining American interests across Latin America; After extending a unilateral olive branch to Iran, disregarding the dramatic 2009 Green Movement protests, and losing valuable diplomatic leverage, the administration is now struggling to reassert pressure on the Iranian regime in the face of new reports of advances in its nuclear weapons program.

Reports indicate that President Obama’s budget address today will offer rhetorical support and perhaps some specific ideas for reducing the deficit. This is a head-snapping reversal from two years ago, when the White House added another $787 billion to the debt with its ill-advised stimulus bill, and from one year ago, when the White House dogmatically forged ahead with a health care plan that somehow managed the unholy trifecta of being unpopular, ineffective, and exorbitantly expensive. It is even a brazen u-turn from two months ago, when the White House released its 2012 budget proposal that forecast budget deficits and mounting debt as far as the red ink on the OMB charts could reach. In short, last week’s budget deal and today’s speech mark an administration in retreat — trying to undo the damage done during their first two years in office in a series of self-inflicted wounds.

While this week’s headlines are about the domestic politics of the budget crisis, this pattern of the administration now struggling to correct the mistakes of its first two years appears across much of its foreign policy as well. Consider:

  • After dismissing democracy promotion as a strategic priority in the Middle East and even slashing the budget for democracy programs in Egypt, the White House was caught off guard by the Arab Spring and is still struggling to keep pace with the change sweeping the region;
  • After elevating multilateralism from a prudential tactic to a dogmatic principle where American leadership takes a back seat, the administration now finds itself engaged in another Middle Eastern war with a coalition of divided leadership and misaligned means and ends;
  • After misconstruing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the strategic linchpin of the entire Middle East, and an imbalanced fixation on a freeze in Israeli settlement activity as the essential precondition to progress, the White House now finds itself back at square one. And they know they have a problem on their policy when even John Kerry dismisses it as a "wasted…year and a half."
  • After lambasting military tribunals and the Bush administration’s counter-terrorism legal apparatus, the administration loses two years before reversing itself and deciding to try 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Muhammed before a military tribunal;
  • After publicly dismissing human rights concerns in China and signaling to Beijing that American diplomatic advocacy on human rights need not be taken seriously, the Administration now belatedly takes notice that China is in the midst of its worst crackdown on dissidents in at least three years;
  • After downplaying — and sometimes opposing — free trade agreements with American partner nations, the administration now seems to realize the economic and diplomatic costs of this negligence, and is struggling to bring important free trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama across the finish line. Not to mention scrambling to complete the Trans Pacific Partnership before hosting the APEC summit later this year;
  • After giving Hugo Chavez a presidential hug, the administration two years later still finds the Venezuelan thug fomenting mischief and undermining American interests across Latin America;
  • After extending a unilateral olive branch to Iran, disregarding the dramatic 2009 Green Movement protests, and losing valuable diplomatic leverage, the administration is now struggling to reassert pressure on the Iranian regime in the face of new reports of advances in its nuclear weapons program.

To be clear, it is much better to admit mistakes, remedy the damage, and change course rather than the alternative of doubling down on bad policies. Hopefully the White House is at last finding its foreign policy footing. But there seems to be a cautionary tale here in the hubris of an administration that took office reflexively intending to reverse course from the predecessor policies of the Bush administration and naively assuming that the charm and image of President Obama could transcend the power realities of world politics.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, both at the University of Texas at Austin, a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, and the author of The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink.

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