Shadow Government

Questions the election did not answer

President Obama's victory last night was decisive enough to spare the country weeks of litigation over provisional ballots. And it delays for at least four years the ceremony where we handed over the cyber-keys of Shadow Government to our friends across the aisle. Aside from that, it is hard to argue that the election decisively resolved the question of where the country should go for the next four years.

As numerous people observed, after years of campaigning and some $2 billion dollars of campaign-related expenditures, the country ended up about where it was in 2010: the reins of government split between the two parties, an electorate narrowly and bitterly divided with neither side apparently capable of empathizing with the other side, and with no apparent national consensus on the big issues facing the country. The Democrats clearly have the whip hand, but does anyone seriously believe that President Obama received a strong mandate on key policy issues?

This applies especially to the foreign policy and national security issues near and dear to the hearts of Shadow Government. What did the voters say about the following key decisions President Obama must make in the coming six months:

  • Should the United States press for a U.N. mandate to intervene in Syria's bloody civil war?
  • Should the United States lead a coalition (from in front or from behind) on Syria with or without a U.N. mandate?
  • Given declining leverage in the region, how can the United States mitigate the damage of the spiraling sectarian warfare in the Middle East?
  • How involved should the United States be in an intervention in Mali?
  • Beyond the obvious steps of hunting and bringing to justice the terrorists who carried out the Benghazi attack, how should the United States deal with a Libya that is spiraling towards chaos?
  • What is the worst deal we can live with on the Iranian nuclear program? Should we surrender redlines regarding enrichment that all Administrations have insisted on? What should we do if that "worst deal" is still not good enough to satisfy the Iranians? Is a military strike that only delays an Iranian nuclear program worse than learning to live with a nuclear Iran?
  • How should the United States manage relations with partners like Pakistan and Egypt, who are too dangerous to fail and apparently too frail to ensure our interests and values?
  • What, if anything, can and should the United States do if the eurozone inches towards a collapse?
  • If China's rocky leadership transition produces spikes in hyper-nationalism and adventurism, can we simultaneously reassure our allies and partners in Asia without triggering escalation spirals?

If you expand the horizon to encompass the full remaining term of the Obama administration, the list of foreign policy and national security challenges gets even more daunting:

  • How can the United States repair a fraying coalition in support of the war against terrorist networks, especially when we increasingly rely on a tool the world increasingly abhors: drone strikes?
  • Is it possible to nudge Iraq back onto the positive trajectory it was four years ago or is that opportunity lost for good and, if so, how can we mitigate the damage?
  • Should the administration honor its apparent campaign promise to abandon Afghanistan completely in 2014, or should it proceed with what had been its policy until very recently -- negotiating a Status of Forces agreement that provides for a sizable stay-behind presence?
  • How can the United States adequately resource the "pivot" to Asia without either restoring some of the promised defense cuts or pursuing deep and painful cuts to military pay and compensation?
  • How can the administration repair the lost trust across the civil-military divide?

And so on....

What all of these questions have in common is that on each of them the Obama campaign avoided presenting a clear set of proposed answers and so received from the electorate no clear guidance.

In fact, to the extent that foreign policy was discussed, it seemed to devolve into scorched earth attacks on Romney and the pedigree of his advisors or unqualified defenses of a caricatured version of the last four years.

Privately, my friends in the administration would admit to mistakes but publicly the campaign refused any such candor. When pressed, my friends would claim that they were simply adopting a page from the Bush 2004 playbook, implying that they, too, would do serious mid-course corrections as needed once they had secured a second term.

I hope so and, if so, there should be plenty of opportunity for those of us in the cheap seats to applaud the administration and to work to repair areas of bipartisan consensus.

Of course, those of us in the cheap seats have plenty of other work to do or we might be buying a lifetime lease on the bench. The campaign exposed some divisive internal Republican debates on America's role in the world, and perhaps Shadow Government can be a place where that debate is resolved in a compelling and coalition-expanding way.


Shadow Government

Early thanksgiving for election day

Tomorrow is election day. It brings -- at last -- an end to this exhausting campaign season. A respite that I'm sure President Obama and Gov. Romney welcome more than anyone. By this point just about everyone who cares in the outcome has had their chances to pontificate, contribute, mobilize, volunteer, and otherwise do their part for their chosen candidate. Our crew here at Shadow Government has expressed our opinions.

Many have observed that this is one of the most consequential elections in recent American history, and I don't disagree. There are not just two candidates competing but two different visions over the American future, and fundamental questions such as whether our nation can still be a place of opportunity, enterprise, aspiration, upward mobility, and limited yet effective government. But without downplaying the gravity of tomorrow's vote, here I want to pivot away from any last minute campaign interventions and instead reflect on this moment in the life of our nation - at once still young yet also the oldest constitutional republic in the world. History and geography both offer some welcome perspective and, I hope, reassurances for all Americans.

First, let us take pride in but never take for granted the fact that whichever candidate loses will honor the will of the electorate. Every time an incumbent American president is defeated, he willingly steps aside and permits the greatest peaceful transfer of power in world history. Every time a challenger loses to an incumbent, he accepts the result and submits to the authority of his president. Even the most fervent partisans on both sides will appreciate that should President Obama lose, he will graciously relinquish power to President-elect Romney. And if Gov. Romney loses, he will graciously step aside and honor President Obama's second term. Americans don't have to worry about the defeated candidate mobilizing a militia of tanks in the streets, or riots in the cities, or secession. (Sure, Florida in 2000 wasn't pretty, but the fact that it was peacefully resolved further reinforces this point).

Second, while the consequences of this election are substantial, they are not existential. Our nation's current trials are severe, but we have been through worse. This is not 1796, when the question of whether our republican experiment in ordered liberty would endure was answered by George Washington's willingness to step aside and allow an election for his successor. This is not 1860, when secession and war loomed, and the nation's very existence was in peril. This is not 1940, when world war approached. And this is not any of the Cold War elections, when Americans voted not just for the man who would preside over their economy but also over the launch codes and contest with the Soviet Union that threatened global apocalypse.

Third, the very fact that we can vote and choose our leaders is a blessing that many in the world today do not know. Two days after our presidential election, the Chinese government will also begin to transfer power from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping - an outcome that is foreordained, and that 1.3 billion Chinese citizens will have no say in. Russia held its own stage-managed election earlier this year, when the only uncertainty was the final numbers in the manufactured margin of Vladimir Putin's coronation. Some 35,000 Syrian citizens have been killed by their own government for their efforts to demand accountability of their rulers and a voice in their nation's future. Many Iranians risked (or even sacrificed) their lives for the same thing in 2009. The freedom we have in the United States to choose our own leaders and know that they will honor the democratic process "has been bought with a price," to invoke the biblical phrase. Let us honor it, and be thankful, as we vote this election day.