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President Reticent



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Obama doesn’t tell you what he’s thinking. He keeps his motives to himself. Cherished long-term ideological goals are advanced as pragmatic fixes to concrete problems in the present. Now we’re seeing the familiar domestic pattern in foreign policy as well.

Few Americans realize that Obama has had a longstanding interest in multilateral efforts to combat war crimes and genocide. Obama would like to see a more constraining international legal regime on war crimes, even at the cost of national sovereignty, not to mention the blood and treasure of the countries doing the enforcing. In general, Obama has said little about his larger foreign policy goals. To the extent that he has done so, Obama seems more the “realist” than an advocate of humanitarian intervention.

Yet for years, Samantha Power, a prominent advocate of humanitarian intervention and a key backer of our action in Libya, has been a powerful member of Obama’s foreign policy team. In 2005, Obama contacted Power after reading her book on genocide. There followed a long conversation, after which Power left Harvard to work for Obama, quic‘kly emerging as his senior foreign policy advisor.

It seems reasonable to conclude from his long-term relationship with Power that Obama shares her interest in making humanitarian military interventions more common. Yet the president has said little about this, and the obvious policy implications of his ties with Power are rarely drawn. In his biography of Obama, David Remnick describes the beginnings of the Power-Obama relationship thus: “Obama did not strike Power as a liberal interventionist or a Kissingerian realist or any other kind of ideological ‘ist’ except maybe a ‘consequentialist.’ In foreign policy, Obama said, he was for what worked.”

Here we have the classic protective presentation of Obama. The future president reads a book by a passionately ideological humanitarian interventionist and quickly hires her as his key foreign policy advisor. Yet the obvious ideological implications of this are left entirely unexplored. Instead we are quickly reassured that Obama is nothing but a pragmatist.

There is a germ of truth to the pragmatism claim. Obama doesn’t seem to have a single overarching strategic perspective. Instead he “pragmatically” juggles competing sensibilities on foreign policy, ranging from multiculturalist non-interventionism, to postcolonial exhortation, to humanitarian interventionism, to a political desire to keep foreign-policy problems sufficiently in check to allow a focus on domestic transformation. But if Obama shifts “pragmatically” between competing foreign-policy orientations, the stances themselves are intensely ideological, and almost entirely unavowed.

Most of the commentary on Libya has focused on the tension between Obama’s apparent desire to displaceQaddafi and his reluctance to admit to it. But the chief reason for this intervention is the one that’s staring us in the face. Obama dithered when it was simply a matter of replacing Qaddafi, yet quickly acted when slaughter in Benghazi became the issue. What Samantha Power and her supporters want is to solidify the principle of “responsibility to protect” in international law. That requires a “pure” case of intervention on humanitarian grounds. Power’s agenda would explain why Obama acted when he acted, and why the public rationale for action has not included regime change.

Yet Obama has so far been reluctant to fully explain any of this to either Congress or the American public, perhaps because he realizes that the ideological basis of his actions would not be popular if openly admitted. If Obama were a different sort of president, we would have all heard about “responsibility to protect” long ago. The country would have thoroughly debated Power’s ideas, and the public would have quickly recognized the core motives of the president’s actions in Libya.

Instead, the president’s long-term goals have remained murky. He’s been impossibly vague on regime change, narrowly focused on the danger to Benghazi, and has said relatively little about the aspirations of Power and her associates to enshrine the principles and precedents of humanitarian intervention in international law.

As with health care, Obama’s talk isn’t working because he cannot afford to specify broader ideological motivations he knows the public won’t buy.



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