Shadow Government

Did the leader of the free world actually lead?

In his 2009 Inaugural Address, President Obama laid down a marker to those who would threaten the United States:

"We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.  And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken -- you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

In 2011, he fulfilled this promise by ordering a daring raid on al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, resulting in the death of the architect of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  Given that the greatest responsibility of any commander in chief is keeping the American people safe, this action, combined with the president's continuance and expansion of many of the counterterrorism policies initiated by the Bush administration, were the president's greatest accomplishments in 2011.

However, lurking beneath these successes are the President's greatest failures of 2011. 

The president's counterterrorism accomplishments over the last three years have been supported by his policies toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His willingness in 2009 to extend his campaign timeline for withdrawal from Iraq and his initial stewardship of the gains achieved by President Bush's 2007 surge of forces created the opportunity for a significant victory in the war on terror.  As the events of the last two weeks indicate, that outcome, unfortunately, is no longer certain given the administration's inability or unwillingness to negotiate a U.S. military presence in that country after the end of this year.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, the president initially appeared intent on achieving a military victory against the extremists that threaten Afghanistan's stability.  His 2009 surge of forces has produced significant gains, especially in the south.  But the president now seems more focused on winning reelection than winning the war.  The surge forces will be out of the country by October of next year and the press is rife with reports of secret reconciliation talks with the Taliban that could undermine the Afghan government and reverse the gains made by the Afghan people since the brutal days of Taliban rule.

Compounding these two failures in 2011 was the president's inability to leverage the momentous developments of the Arab Spring.  As people seeking their freedom took to the streets in country after country, President Obama stood by, letting others, many of whom do not share America's interests, take the lead.  Fundamental change in the sclerotic Arab world has the potential to reverse the trends that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the extremism that continues to threaten our way of life.  Unfortunately, the leader of the free world refused to lead.

Great leaders shape the strategic landscape rather than allow themselves and their countries to be buffeted around by world events.  President Obama deserves credit in 2011 for policies that led to the deaths of many who plotted to kill Americans, but because of his unwillingness to consolidate gains in Iraq and Afghanistan and embrace the revolutions of the Arab Spring, 2011 will likely be remembered as a year of missed opportunities rather than strategic successes.

Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Shadow Government

Are the kids alright?

A nation can be judged by how it cares for and protects the most vulnerable.  As our fearless curator Will Inboden pointed out, it was a welcome change when President Obama gave due credit to President Bush for one of his proudest legacies, combatting HIV/AIDs globally.  It would have been easy for President Bush, when faced with the global suffering caused by HIV/AIDs, to look the other way or to do lip service to addressing it.  Instead, he made it a signature initiative that saved millions of lives just because it was the right thing to do. 

A related challenge presents a similar opportunity to President Obama. Millions of highly vulnerable children today are living outside family care in every country including our own.  Some have been orphaned by HIV/AIDs, others trafficked or forced into labor and still others are living in institutions, on the streets or in refugee camps alone.  The Obama Administration, mostly due to Secretary Clinton's leadership, has made significant progress addressing this global challenge and could leave behind a solid legacy if it builds upon it again this year.

I recently participated in two groundbreaking events focused on highly vulnerable children. The first in November was the Way Forward Project Summit sponsored by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) which brought together African and U.S. officials and experts in this field to make recommendations for strengthening child protection systems in six African countries.  The event was held at the State Department and Secretary Clinton gave solid remarks making her the first Cabinet level official to specifically address this important cross-cutting issue. 

The second event in December was an Evidence Summit on protecting children outside family care.  It was sponsored by USAID with participation and support from over a dozen U.S. government agencies or offices that work with vulnerable children.  For the first time, a true ‘whole of government' approach was presented that is beginning to break through the silos that typically define our government's approach to children's issues globally.   USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah drew from his personal experience in Haiti seeing the devastating toll of the earthquake on children and ended his opening remarks by noting that the most important line of protection for vulnerable children is a safe and loving family. 

There remains a strong disconnect between our diplomacy and foreign assistance when it comes to children's issues that I highlighted here.  Still anyone who has worked on children's issues for awhile knows that this interdisciplinary gathering was a welcome step forward for USAID which is not always known for its flexibility or coordination.  The credit here goes to the hard-working team from the P.L.109-95 Secretariat that manages a congressional mandate to coordinate the U.S. response to orphans and other highly vulnerable children.  The mandate is of the dreaded ‘unfunded' sort, but USAID and the other offices involved have proven that hard work, commitment and a little cooperation can accomplish much.   They also have shown that a relatively small amount of money directed strategically through coordinated mechanisms could go a long way in protecting children from exploitation, abuse and neglect.  The social return on investment (SROI) numbers for money targeting at-risk children are impressive.  There are huge benefits to children, families and whole societies by decreasing crime, human trafficking, gang violence, unemployment and poor physical, mental and emotional development of entire populations.  It's a strategic opportunity to use our limited foreign assistance dollars wisely.  

There are two big challenges to launching a global initiative to help vulnerable children.  Money is tight and it's an election year. But money also was tight when President Bush launched his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.  He made it a priority and did it anyway.  It may be wishful thinking to believe any progress could be made on a major new initiative for children and families in an election year. But like HIV/AIDs, this is a strongly bipartisan issue. It garners broad, passionate support on both sides of the increasingly polarized political divide. The Congressional Caucus on Adoption is the largest bipartisan caucus in the U.S. Congress. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) is one of its House co-chairs and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D), who attended both the events I referenced above, is one of its most vocal Senate leaders.  Many Members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - also are champions of the fight against human (child) trafficking.  For these reasons, I will continue my wishful thinking that, even in these difficult times, we might still pull together as a nation to help the very poorest and most vulnerable.  Because securing liberty and justice for all is simply the right thing to do.     

Kris Connor/Getty Images