A Cheer for Obama on the terrorism issue
My Shadow colleagues have already taken the best choices for best and worst foreign policy moves of 2011. I might quibble with them on minor points. For instance, contra Inboden, Obama has not "creat[ed] a new strategic posture in Asia." Rather, after meandering a bit with some failed efforts (G-2, the 2009 Myanmar outreach), by ...
I might quibble with them on minor points. For instance, contra Inboden, Obama has not "creat[ed] a new strategic posture in Asia." Rather, after meandering a bit with some failed efforts (G-2, the 2009 Myanmar outreach), by the end of 2011 Obama can finally and truthfully claim that "America is Back," by which I mean, "America is back to pursuing the successful Asian strategic posture that President Bush bequeathed to Obama." And, contra Blumenthal, I think the Trans Pacific Partnership announcement is less significant than it otherwise should be precisely because the Obama Administration’s record on free trade is so equivocal. If the gap between vision and execution gets too large, then the vision itself becomes a source of friction rather than inspiration. The soundings I have taken in the region convince me that we are uncomfortably close to that point when it comes to trade. But these are quibbles; my Shadow colleagues have done a good job compiling cheer-worthy and jeer-worthy steps taken this past year.
Since I have already weighed in with critiques and would like to end the year on a high point, I will only flag a cheer-worthy move (there will be time aplenty in the coming year for further critique): 2011 marked the year when Obama irrevocably embraced the bipartisan war frame in confronting the challenges of transnational terrorism.
Candidate Obama campaigned unevenly against the war frame. On the one hand, he criticized Bush for underemphasizing the war on terror, as when he alleged that Bush took his "eye off the ball" and when Obama boasted about a willingness to do unilateral strikes against Pakistan. On the other hand, Obama blamed what he considered to be excesses in the fight precisely on the war frame and promised to undo a long list of Bush policies.
The unevenness continued into the first year or so of Obama’s tenure. On the one hand, he ramped up some aspects of the war on terror, particularly drone strikes and the surge in Afghanistan. On the other hand, he tolerated demoralizing witch-hunts to ferret out "wrongdoing" in the Bush Administration, promised rashly to close Gitmo without accurately counting the costs, and famously attempted to relabel activities (combat became "overseas contingency operations," and so on).
The unevenness was enough for reasonable people to debate whether Obama marked radical discontinuity or fundamental continuity in the war on terror. Reasonable people such as President Obama and former Vice-President Cheney used to plausibly claim the former. As 2011 closes and one by one the attempted changes fell by the wayside, only the latter is plausible.
As I argued earlier, resolving the question in favor of bipartisan continuity does not resolve all policy debates about what to do. There is still plenty to debate about the handling of the terrorism file, and the 2012 campaign will provide an opportunity to do so. But the cartoons and chimeras that contributed confusion to earlier rounds have finally been put to rest and that is a cheer-worthy foreign policy achievement.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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