Shadow Government

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

What Obama’s done right — and wrong

In assessing the most important things that the Obama Administration got right and got wrong in 2011, there are an abundance of choices in both categories.  National security-wise, the Administration had a very mixed year — genuinely so, in terms of a number of notable successes as well as a number of significant failures.  The ...

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.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

In assessing the most important things that the Obama Administration got right and got wrong in 2011, there are an abundance of choices in both categories.  National security-wise, the Administration had a very mixed year -- genuinely so, in terms of a number of notable successes as well as a number of significant failures.  The former include an improved strategic posture in Asia, the discovery of a freedom agenda for the Middle East and Asia, helping engineer Qaddaffi's ouster in Libya, and of course killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and other Al Qaeda High-Value Targets.  The latter category includes being repeatedly behind the curve on the Arab Spring, waffling on Iran's nuclear program, botching the drawdown and military exit from Iraq, losing Pakistan, further alienating Israel, and getting left holding an empty bag on the Russia "re-set."  While any of the above would be legitimate choices, my main criteria for selecting the best and worst is how each will look in the light of history.  In other words, 25 or 50 years from now, what might historians look back on and evaluate as the best and worst of the Obama Administration's policies in 2011?  I honestly don't know, and anyone who insists we can know history's judgments in advance is committing historical malpractice.  But that doesn't mean we can't at least speculate -- and admit it is mere speculation -- on what might have the most enduring consequences.  Here are mine.

The Obama Administration's Most Significant Success: Creating a new strategic posture in Asia.  If the Obama Administration's initial Asia policy consisted of naively pursuing an illusory "G-2" with China while neglecting our regional allies and universal values such as human liberty, than 2011 marked a substantial course correction in the Indo-Pacific.  A renewed commitment to allies such as Japan and Australia, increased attention to emerging partners such as India and Indonesia, outreach to potential partners such as Vietnam and Burma, and an upgraded strategic posture across the region were all features of a substantially improved Asia policy that has the potential to pay dividends for a generation. 

In assessing the most important things that the Obama Administration got right and got wrong in 2011, there are an abundance of choices in both categories.  National security-wise, the Administration had a very mixed year — genuinely so, in terms of a number of notable successes as well as a number of significant failures.  The former include an improved strategic posture in Asia, the discovery of a freedom agenda for the Middle East and Asia, helping engineer Qaddaffi’s ouster in Libya, and of course killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki, and other Al Qaeda High-Value Targets.  The latter category includes being repeatedly behind the curve on the Arab Spring, waffling on Iran’s nuclear program, botching the drawdown and military exit from Iraq, losing Pakistan, further alienating Israel, and getting left holding an empty bag on the Russia "re-set."  While any of the above would be legitimate choices, my main criteria for selecting the best and worst is how each will look in the light of history.  In other words, 25 or 50 years from now, what might historians look back on and evaluate as the best and worst of the Obama Administration’s policies in 2011?  I honestly don’t know, and anyone who insists we can know history’s judgments in advance is committing historical malpractice.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t at least speculate — and admit it is mere speculation — on what might have the most enduring consequences.  Here are mine.

The Obama Administration’s Most Significant Success: Creating a new strategic posture in Asia.  If the Obama Administration’s initial Asia policy consisted of naively pursuing an illusory "G-2" with China while neglecting our regional allies and universal values such as human liberty, than 2011 marked a substantial course correction in the Indo-Pacific.  A renewed commitment to allies such as Japan and Australia, increased attention to emerging partners such as India and Indonesia, outreach to potential partners such as Vietnam and Burma, and an upgraded strategic posture across the region were all features of a substantially improved Asia policy that has the potential to pay dividends for a generation. 

The Obama Administration’s Most Substantial Failure: The National Debt.  Recently retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen frequently called the national debt "the single biggest threat" to our national security.  Yet it was also the biggest failure of the Obama Administration during the year, a failure that might hurt America for decades to come.  What was the White House’s fault on this?  Part of it was, to paraphrase Governor Mitch Daniels, a failure of arithmetic: presiding over the increase of the debt to the unfathomable amount of $15 trillion (an unprecedented increase of $4 trillion just since Obama took office) without making any effort to reform entitlement spending.  But the bigger part of the failure was the White House’s cheap demagoguery that attacked any credible plan such as Paul Ryan’s, and the cynical disregard of bipartisan efforts such as Obama’s own Simpson-Bowles Commission.  All of which further poisoned the political environment and put any prospects for fiscal sanity on life support. 

Why is this a national security failure?  For the obvious reasons of how the debt strangles needed resources for the defense, diplomacy, and development budgets, or how it gives China economic leverage over us, or how it threatens the dollar’s status as the global reserve currency.  But more perniciously, the debt is a national security failure because of how it undermines one of the main pillars of American power and global preeminence: our economic dynamism and our model of an opportunity society.  Ryan Streeter astutely calls this a "crisis of aspiration," and a national debt that now equals our national GDP cuts at the heart of American exceptionalism and leadership. 

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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