The Gulliverization of US Foreign Policy — 21 March 2011

People have every right to expect the leader of the free world to lead the free world.  That doesn’t seem to be too much to ask, does it?

For the bulk of his Presidency, Mr. Obama has shown a singular reluctance to get out front on critical issues.  Even on the “pre-existing conditions” of Iraq and Afghanistan, the President essentially followed the path that was paved for him by George W. Bush.   After being so critical of the Bush Iraq strategy during the campaign, Obama adopted the Bush timetable – and then had the chutzpah to take credit for it!

Then, when it came time to re-evaluate the Afghan strategy, the President spent an agonizing period of months hemming and hawing about the proper course – consuming a third of the critical time his military commander said was necessary to turn the situation around – before settling on a half-a-loaf approach made up of a partial “surge” coupled with a firm exit date.  This was a sure invitation for the Taliban to wait us out.  Only gradually has Obama apparently come to the realization that the battle will take longer than that, and talk of the August 2011 exit has given way to reference to 2014.

But it is in handling the cascade of popular revolts that President Obama has truly shown himself to be following rather than leading events.  It started in Iran, where the green revolution that followed Ahmedinejad’s stolen election showed promise of leading to the regime change that has been US policy for twenty years.  Obama’s support of those protesters remained mostly verbal, and was compromised by his continued courting of the mullahs’ regime in vain pursuit of a nuclear deal – which is still unachieved.  When the green revolution was brutally suppressed, Obama’s response was to warn gravely that the world would “bear witness” to Iran’s actions.  (Oh! I’m quaking! said the mullahs.)

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia happened so fast that the US didn’t really have time to fail to get involved.  It was not the same in Egypt.  Granted, Obama was between a rock and a hard place: should he support his firmest Arab ally in the Mideast, or throw America’s weight behind the protesters that flocked to Tahrir Square every night?  For weeks, his statements and those of his surrogates balanced awkwardly between the two, with exhortations for Mubarak to “acknowledge the legitimate demands” of the protesters but no suggestion that his position was anything but secure.  Only when it became clear that the army would not fire on the protesters, which meant that Mubarak could not prevail, did the US begin advocating his departure.  This administration seems eager to push on a rock that has already started downhill.

Worse yet has been the handling of the crisis in Libya.  The revolt against Gaddafi’s regime grew rapidly as they had elsewhere.  Here there was more of the flavor of an armed revolution, with anti-regime forces occupying Benghazi, Ras Lanuf, and other cities in the eastern part of the country.  As they advanced on Tripoli, it looked briefly as though the rebels would quickly turf out the aging dictator.

As Gaddafi struck back, shooting indiscriminately at his own citizens, critical support slipped away: senior diplomats defected, airmen flew their planes to Italy rather than fire on their countrymen.  Through all this, Obama maintained a studied ambivalence.  Even when Former Justice Minister Mustafa Abul Al-Jeleil affirmed that Gaddafi had personally ordered the bombing of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, the reluctance of the White House to take a strong position was alarming.

Gradually Obama and Secretary of State Clinton began articulating US policy that Gaddafi had to “step down,” but in the next breath affirmed that the US had no interest in making that happen.  There was no talk of recognizing the provisional government in the east as France did on March 10, no talk of arming the rebels or providing them assistance against Gaddafi’s murderous air force.  Instead,  economic sanctions were applied against senior regime figures – long-term policies in the face of a crisis that was evolving by the hour.

While Gaddafi’s troops and mercenaries recaptured town after town from the rebels, and closed in on Benghazi, their principal city, NATO and the UN debated a response.  The French called for action; so did the British.   But it was only when the Arab League shook off decades of diplomatic torpor and called for a no-fly zone that President Obama bestirred himself to advocate a similar course.

And now we have a no-fly zone in place.  The US military, with assistance from the usual allies, has proved again its mastery of the art of war.  But what now?  This coalition of the willing has no leadership and no objective.  Not once has President Obama been the dominant voice in this exercise; if anything, Hillary Clinton has been the most visible American presence.  What Obama has said clearly is that this not a principally American venture: there will be no US boots on the ground, and indeed, within days of its beginning the US role will be reduced to the background: logistics, intelligence, communications, and so forth.

So who will be maintaining the no-fly zone, and to what purpose?  The oft-repeated aim of UN Resolution 1973 is to protect Libya’s civilian population from its leader.  But having accomplished that, what now?  Who is in command of the air cover operation – the NATO Chief of Operations?  France?  Qatar?  A committee?  The proponents of this response seem to be in disarray, and all because the leader of the free world is not leading.

Obama’s view of America’s role in the world seems to be that of Gulliver: too big and clumsy to be allowed free movement, it must be restrained by the many-handed cooperation of international bodies like the UN.  But when America fails to lead, leadership doesn’t happen.  That is what is happening here, and it is likely to end in a divided Libya in a state of low-grade civil war, with Gaddafi in charge of enough oil wealth and military capability to wreak great trouble in the region and the world.

And all because Obama is reluctant to lead.

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