The Good, the Bad, and the Strange Wars
Obama’s confusion over foreign policy landed him in a Libyan mess
Back in February 2009, I wrote a piece for this newspaper asking President Obama to take a moment and decide whether he was an idealist or a realist in the world of foreign policy. Failure to answer this question, I warned, would lead him into many of the situations his predecessor had found himself in.
Two years later, as I watch President Obama offer a tortured defense of his newest war in an Arab country, I can’t help but crack a smile and pat myself on the back. It’s not often that a columnist gets to watch his predictions come so true.
I shouldn’t engage in schadenfreude. Obama is my president, the airmen over Libya are my countrymen, and the outcome of this war matters. And yet, the alternative to self-satisfied I-told-you-so’s is frustration — frustration at a president who, despite two years on the job, has failed to develop a world view that coheres. He is making it up as he goes along, while untrained Libyan teenagers battle the mercenaries of a tyrant. Savoring the I-told-you-so is all that keeps my blood pressure down.
It’s not just Libya where muddled thinking has been on display: for decades, U.S. presidents have dreamed of having leverage over Iran, yet when protests rocked Tehran almost a year ago, the president wrung his hands and bemoaned how difficult of a position he was being put in. George Bush spent billions on the goal of a democratic Middle East, yet when Tunisia and Egypt had their democratic revolutions, Obama awkwardly straddled embracing and spurning the freedom movement that was all his predecessor could have hoped for. And now, as Moammar Gadhafi — a long-hated, terrorism-supporting tyrant — stands on the edge of defeat by a grassroots uprising, the president seems genuinely conflicted about tipping him over.
I cannot even begin to understand what Obama’s thought process has been. His actions simply do not match any of the major schools of thought on foreign policy — he even fails at the most basic level: on some days the administration claims that the mission is solely to protect the population of Libya, and on others demands that Gadhafi step down. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but even great minds display at least a modicum of it.
Even when the president takes time out to try to explain what is going on — as he did at the National Defense University last week — he creates more questions than he answers. At NDU, Obama offered up what pundits are calling the “Obama Doctrine”: we will take unilateral action if our core national interests are threatened, and use multilateral means if only our values are at stake.
There are two problems with this doctrine. The first is that this celebration of multilateralism seems like making a virtue out of a necessity — Obama, for his part, has been remarkably reluctant to support democracy in the Middle East and turned to the U.N. more as a way to stall for time than anything else. It was there that France and Britain pushed the U.S. into supporting the Libyan people, not the other way around. In this instance, the lesson to be drawn from multilateralism is that it has the potential to ensnare the U.S. in conflicts that its leaders would rather avoid.
Secondly, since the president took office, I’ve seen three or four “Obama Doctrines” coined by pundits, and this latest one is just as useless at developing sound foreign policy as those before it. Not only does it fail to clarify our goals in Libya (are we for regime change?), but it fails to offer any advice on other problems. Should we intervene in the Ivory Coast? Should we ask President Saleh of Yemen to step down, knowing he might be the only thing preventing that country from becoming a failed, tribal state? What about Bahrain — how do our democratic values compare to our need for a base to house the Fifth Fleet? What is the plan for Syria, which looks like a higher-stakes version of Libya? And speaking of higher stakes, what about countries like Iran or Venezuela, or — going to an even further extreme — what does this new Obama Doctrine mean for our relations with Russia and China? For a “doctrine,” Obama’s does strikingly little to define U.S. aims and the means by which those aims will be accomplished.
But enough about the doctrineless Obama. What should be done in Libya?
President Obama has called the war in Libya a humanitarian intervention, and many in the commentariat have accordingly tried to compare it to past humanitarian interventions. But Libya does not fit in the humanitarian box, and the comparisons are inapt. Libya is not a failed state like Somalia, where we played Whac-A-Mole with warlords until we realized the juice was not worth the squeeze. Nor is it Bosnia, where ethnic divisions doomed the country to painful division and an unclear endgame. Libya is a country suffering from one problem — a dictator. The solution is clear: regime change.
There are plenty of unanswered questions about what comes after Gadhafi. Much as it now is with Egypt and Tunisia, in a post-Gadhafi world, we will watch, worry, and wonder if a more liberal government can take root. But any of the likely outcomes are better than keeping Gadhafi in power, and nothing demands that we remain entangled in Libya’s future after Gadhafi is gone — our exit plan for Libya can be as simple as leaving once the colonel has been captured. Conversely, a humanitarian war that leaves Gadhafi in power raises more questions than it answers. How is the U.S. to guarantee the security of a free eastern Libya if it leaves a sullen dictator to fester next door? The present worries over U.S. exit strategy in Libya are only justified because the president has inexplicably refused to take up the obvious exit strategy afforded to him.
There is also no reason to hem and haw and hedge ourselves: the point of going into Libya was to go in eagerly, as France and Britain have, to demonstrate to other nations in the region that brutalizing their own citizens is a risky course of action. To enter into Libya in the muddled way that Obama has is better than not going in at all, but it fails to grasp at all the benefits such an intervention should accrue to us.
Some in America have complained about the costs of war and claimed that the U.S. is not in a position to afford another conflict. But let’s put things in perspective: the Iraq war cost roughly $50 billion dollars between its start and Saddam’s capture. Libya’s population is about a fifth of that of Iraq, is less militarized, is a logistically far easier place for our military to reach, will be prosecuted with considerable cost defrayed by allies, and has the active, fighting support of its populace. A successful ground war — if it comes to that — could be expected to last a matter of weeks and cost perhaps $2–5 billion, a figure so small that including it in the budget as a one-time earmark would raise few eyebrows.
It is not too late to right the missteps. If Obama were to simply make our war aims clear — if he were to publicly commit the full power of the United States to the removal of Gadhafi from power — his previous, inexplicable waffling would pass without consequence. But don’t hold your breath — President Obama still does not know what he is doing.