Goodbye and Hello: A Shadow Government Peaceful Transfer of Power
A look back on the past eight years, a transition to a new Shadow Government, and where the Elephants in the Room go from here.
Shortly before President Barack Obama’s inauguration eight years ago, we began this experiment known as “Shadow Government,” launching what we hoped would be a blog of informed commentary on American foreign policy, winsome in tone, credible in content, singular in perspective. We assembled a stable of contributors who had held policy positions in a Republican administration and could bring a unique angle to commentary on the Obama administration’s national security policies: a “loyal opposition” united by love of country, experience in the seat of policymaking, and Republican allegiances.
In design and ambition, Shadow Government harked back to an age when foreign policy could be vigorously debated, including through different partisan lenses, but with a presumption of goodwill on both sides. We wanted to be prepared to praise Obama and his team when they were right, and when they were wrong, we wanted to be sure that our critique had a healthy dollop of empathy. Empathy is an undervalued virtue in contemporary politics and especially political commentary. It means appreciation for the peculiar constraints that operate on policymakers — constraints that are often ignored by other pundits who have not served in similar positions.
The post, “A Proud Moment for America,” one of us (Peter) penned for Inauguration Day 2009 reflected that perspective. It is worth quoting at length:
My dominant feeling is pride in this country — pride that we can transfer the most powerful office on Earth peacefully, and pride that the new president is an American success story whose success is a capstone to the struggle that marked the founding of the Republican Party. (I am also proud of the work that was done in the Bush administration to manage the transition and help prepare the new team for the awesome challenges; perhaps that will be a post for another day, but today is Obama’s day and we should focus on him.)
Peeping out from under the pride is another feeling: hope. I am not talking about the moonpie hope that propelled Obama to office. Nor am I talking about hope that Obama can fix all of the problems we face, let alone pay my gas and mortgage.
Rather, the hope I feel concerns Obama’s opportunity to reshuffle the deck of partisan politics, at least insofar as it relates to national security. As of noon today, responsibility for protecting America rests squarely with the Democratic Party. To be sure, Republicans are obliged to be constructive from their seats in the loyal opposition. But the buck now stops with President Obama and the congressional leadership.
Pundits have compared today to many other presidential inaugurations — Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy — but in national security terms the most significant parallel is Eisenhower’s in 1953, when Republicans wrested back control of the White House and Congress. In doing so, they made the Cold War truly a bipartisan responsibility. I believe we won the Cold War largely because we were able to sustain our efforts across administrations and across parties.
Today marks the day when we do the same thing with the struggle against the violent extremists who attacked us on 9/11 and with the military battles still being waged in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Whether or not we win our current “cold war” depends on if we can similarly share the responsibility for that struggle across administrations and across parties.
The one man with the most responsibility for success or failure in this larger enterprise now is President Obama. I am proud to call him my president. I hope he succeeds.
A new era
How different the world was in January 2009. Compared with the troubles of the present day, 2009 appears in many ways a halcyon time, even if in the moment it did not. To be sure there were many challenges then. Our nation and much of the world had plumbed the depths of the financial crisis and the politically costly efforts taken late in the fall of 2008 to avert an even worse crisis were only beginning to bear fruit. Although al Qaeda was very much on the run and a pale shadow of what it had been, Osama bin Laden was still alive and that chapter very much open. We had just withstood a grave crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, but with the very unsatisfying outcome of Russia occupying Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the most ambitious plans for NATO expansion exposed as unworkable. Nuclear proliferation was a growing problem, with North Korea in possession of a small number of nuclear devices and Iran pursuing its own nuclear ambitions in defiance of the sanctions and multilateral diplomatic coalition arrayed against it. Afghanistan was in a precarious state, albeit with one important tool of statecraft, the surge, still available to be deployed in that theater. And the strategic partnership with India and the strategic dialogue in China were both promising, but delivering less than their full promise.
What is striking about 2017 is that many of those problems are still with us today, albeit in different and often-worse form. Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by the Islamic State, which did not exist in 2009. In the past five years it has become the most formidable terrorist threat of modern times. North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs were less advanced and less menacing than they are now. Ukraine was a secure and independent country. Libya and Syria were intact nations. Iraq was stable and enjoying steady progress toward peace and political reconciliation. Iran struggled under the weight of multilateral sanctions and international ostracism. The South China Sea did not yet have any artificial islands housing Chinese military installations. The European Union was intact, and America enjoyed positive relations with our European allies.
We need not list all of the ways that the world today is different than 2009, and often not for the better. Our astute readers already know that. Our modest hope is that somehow along the way our collective voice, and perhaps a few of our individual posts, helped nudge policy in a better direction, or at least help prevent events from turning out worse than they did. Meanwhile, we hope that the archive of posts that we leave behind, which could fill a few book volumes and will remain available, will be of some interest to future scholars and policymakers who want a window into what Republicans were thinking and saying on the many consequential national security issues during the Obama presidency.
Looking back over the past eight years of our experiment in Shadow Government, a few insights and impressions stand out:
1. It is possible to be a vigorous critic without sacrificing bipartisanship.
2. Policymakers, even at senior levels, make time to read outside commentary.
3. Often, policymakers on both sides of the aisle will agree with each other more than they will agree with academic critics (regardless of partisan affiliation) who present arguments that ignore policy realities.
4. What we applaud can be as important as what we criticize.
5. In the early days, the administration will hype a rhetoric of change but tend toward a policy of continuity; by the end of eight years, the one- or two-degree vector shift, if sustained, can mean that policy and outcomes end up in a very different place.
6. Bush Derangement Syndrome — the pathology that prevents a balanced and measured evaluation of his record — continues to afflict foreign-policy commentary
But perhaps the dominant lesson on Inauguration Day 2017 is the one illustrated by this simple fact: It would be shocking for someone who opposed Donald Trump in the election to write a piece about the incoming president today in the vein of what we wrote about Obama in 2009. After eight years, Obama is handing over to his successor an America that is even more bitterly divided than the one he inherited. We all need to relearn how to debate and disagree over policy without ripping the fabric of what holds us together.
Speaking of holding us together, we remain forever grateful to Chris Brose for first envisioning and launching Shadow Government, and to Susan Glasser for supporting and believing in the vision, and for taking the risk of giving a prominent platform to our merry band of Bush administration alumni. Chris and Susan were not only present at our creation; they were the creators. Likewise, we are profoundly thankful to David Rothkopf, Ben Pauker, and their exceedingly capable staff members past and present, who kept us going, kept us honest, and kept faith with us when we tried their patience and tested their brand. We reserve a special thanks for our readers. Your interest and demand kept us in business, your thoughtful feedback made us better, and your appreciation kept us motivated.
Of course, we are above all grateful for the many Shadow Government contributors who proved to be the real talent while we two were just swanning around, pretending to be in charge.
Where do we go from here?
As our nation inaugurates a new Republican president, the mantle of loyal opposition of course shifts to the Democratic Party. And so it is fitting that as the Trump administration takes over the executive branch, we in turn hand over the helm of Shadow Government to our friends from the other side of the aisle. Next week, Shadow Government will relaunch with new co-editors with an impressive record of public service between them. We are confident they will assemble an equally impressive stable of contributors and that Shadow Government will remain a must-stop destination for all serious foreign-policy observers. We are confident that the new team will continue in the best Shadow Government tradition of offering expert commentary from the unique perspective of recent policymakers, and serving as the voice of the loyal opposition from the party out of power. We are also hopeful that they will avoid any of the mistakes, deficiencies, and missteps that we have made during our time as co-editors, and improve Shadow Government in innovative ways.
To our devoted readers and our equally devoted detractors, fear not, our relinquishing of Shadow Government to the Democrats does not mean that we are relinquishing the Republican megaphone at Foreign Policy. On Monday, we will debut a new channel here at ForeignPolicy.com: “Elephants in the Room.”
“Elephants” — the shorthand title feels inevitable already — will retain many of the same features that our readers have come to love/hate/tolerate at Shadow Government, namely informed commentary on foreign and defense policy from a Republican perspective. We will have more to say about the manifesto and mission of the new blog in our debut next week; please check back often.
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images