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.
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.