We still don’t get Obama. By “we,” I mean Americans generally, many conservatives included. Whatever his critics may say, Obama does know how to lead. He understands exactly where he is taking us. What strikes many as policy confusion or timidity is really just the tension between Obama’s pragmatist cover and his deeply ideological long-term goals. Oddly, Obama’s apparently quirky and confused Libya policy may now be the most effective example of how his seemingly reluctant leadership-style dovetails with his long-term transformative aspirations, foreign and domestic.
I’ve already made this argument in “Samantha Power’s Power,” but two important new articles now lay out a parallel case from very different points of view.
“The Obama Doctrine Defined,” by Douglas J. Feith and Seth Cropsey, the cover story of this summer’s issue of Commentary, is an excellent place to begin unraveling the mystery of Obama. Feith and Cropsey explain that up to now, Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been pragmatic concessions to political reality. They also show how Obama’s sometimes conventional-sounding foreign policy pronouncements mask goals that are far more “novel and grand,” the displacement of national interest as the core guide to American foreign policy and its replacement with an effort to bring about equality among nations. While Obama sometimes appears to take his critics’ complaints to heart — so as to seem a non-ideological pragmatist — Feith and Cropsey emphasize that what they call Obama’s “corkscrew approach” amounts to a sly redefinition of “American leadership” into our supervision of the process by which our interests are subordinated to others.
For the unhappy details of the foreign-policy outlook Obama is advancing, consult Feith-Cropsey yourself. There you will find material, not only from the writings of Samantha Power, but from other key Obama aides like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Harold Koh. Feith and Cropsey summarize by claiming that Obama’s goals amount to a fundamental break with seven decades of American foreign policy, Republican and Democrat, realist and idealist. That divide, after all, is what the many presidential apologies for our past policies are meant to signal. In sum, say Feith and Cropsey, Obama “cares more about restraining America than about accomplishing any particular result in Libya. . . . The critics who accuse Obama of being adrift in foreign policy are mistaken. He has clear ideas of where he wants to go. The problem for him is that, if his strategy is set forth plainly, most Americans will not want to follow him.”
David Rieff’s “Saints Go Marching In,” from the summer issue of The National Interest, is a thoughtful variation on Feith-Cropsey. Rieff has less to say about Obama himself than about the long-term goals of those in the Obama administration, and especially the international community, who have pushed the Libyan war. According to Rieff, the real purpose of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine the Libyan war is designed to entrench in international law is nothing less than the wildly utopian goal of putting an end to war itself. Rather than being openly avowed, that goal is “presented under the flag of convenience of abolishing or preventing war crimes.” On top of this, the ultimate hope of R2P supporters is that the West can be convinced to pay for “a Marshall Plan for half of the Global South.”
In the early years of the Obama administration, the Left dismissed claims of Obama’s radical intentions, frequently offering up his hawkish policies in Iraq and Afghanistan as Exhibit A. Rightly understood, the Libyan intervention explodes these denials, not only confirming Obama’s deeply unconventional intentions with regard to American national interests, but also linking his internationalist vision to his passion for wealth redistribution and equality-of-result at home. And as both Rieff and Feith-Cropsey note, the real long-term goals of the Libyan intervention have been largely hidden from the public by the war’s most influential advocates.
Since the creators of Obama’s post-American foreign policy — like Power, Slaughter, and Koh — work (or have worked) at the administration’s highest levels, Libya is a “teachable moment” for the operations of Obama’s reticent radicalism. The public is confused by the Libyan action, and instinctively feels that the president’s refusal to go to Congress to seek approval for this war was self-protective and wrong. Another teachable moment.
For myself, although I think the Libyan intervention was a serious mistake, I would rather see a quick end to Qaddafi’s regime than a pull-out. Yet the Feith-Cropsey piece appears in a conservative venue that has supported the Libyan intervention from the start. David Rieff is a liberal who has repudiated his former humanitarian interventionism out of concern for the dangerous utopianism, and in his view, neo-colonialism, of R2P-style interventions. So while internal divisions over Libya on both the right and the left have prevented any significant examination of Obama’s true policy goals up to now, the conditions for such scrutiny may now exist.
The public is ready for an explanation of the otherwise unexplainable Libyan adventure, the writings of Obama’s top advisers make his administration’s intent undeniable, and the resemblance of Obama’s leftist foreign and domestic policy goals is now unmistakable. The truth about Libya points the way to the truth about Obama.