Shadow Government

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 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. 

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Showing two faces to terrorism

Ed. note: As we approach the end of another year, the Shadow Government team is resuming our tradition of evaluating the Obama Administration's foreign policy over the past year. Our contributors will be offering their assessments on one thing the White House got right, and one thing the White House got wrong.  Here is the first installment from Dov Zakheim.

Give the President credit: once Osama Bin Laden had been located, Barack Obama had several options for capturing or killing him and he chose the one that involved the greatest risk but yielded the most satisfying outcome. The President and his advisors all were aware of the disaster that was the Carter Administration's attempt to free the Embassy hostages in Tehran. Desert One was a spectacular failure that helped to doom Carter's re-election hopes.

Obama, knowing that his political opponents often compared him to the man who many reckon to be among the least effective president of the twentieth century, needed a lot of gumption to order the Seals into Pakistan to capture or kill the terrorist icon. He knew that the mission might not succeed, and that he too could go down in history as a failed one-term chief executive. He knew, as well, that a raid on Abbottabad would provoke Pakistani ire to the point where relations between Washington and Islamabad might be damaged beyond repair. The President went ahead anyway, and Bin Laden is dead.

On the other hand, the Obama Administration should hang its head in shame over the release of a terrorist who personally masterminded the killing of five American soldiers. Ali Musa Daqduq is Lebanese national and a high level Hezbollah operative. Like so many other Hezbollah leaders, he has ties to the worst elements of the Iranian regime: he has trained members of the notorious Iranian Revolutionary Guard Kuds force, which is closely aligned with Tehran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. That alone should have prevented Washington from turning Daqduq over to the Sh'ia-led Iraqi government, with its more than cordial ties to Iran. But it was his masterminding the ambush, kidnapping and murder of five American soldiers that should have prompted the Administration to make the "no-brainer" decision to transfer him to an American military detention facility (how about Guantanamo?).

What will the Maliki government do about Daqduq?  Since Iraq, clearly at the behest of Tehran, joined Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon in not even voting with its fellow Arab League states to suspend Syria from membership, the answer is clear. Now that American troops have departed Iraq, it is only a matter of time before Baghdad orders the release of Hezbollah's hero.

Hopefully, Daqduq will no longer be in a position to kill more Americans. But given both the likelihood that he will soon be able to roam around the Middle East, and the extent of his terrorist contacts, we can never be sure. It is therefore truly a shame that, having showed so much courage in its successful effort to eliminate one master terrorist, the Obama Administration showed an equal amount of pusillanimity in its treatment of another. The price of that fateful decision may yet be paid.