Since President Obama has been having a rough time lately, let me belatedly congratulate him on his apparently successful policy of regime change in Libya.
Initially, I favored a more robust and decisive intervention when Obama seemed to dither, and then I criticized how he ultimately committed the United States to a so-called leading-from-behind strategy. But fair is fair; whatever happens next — a big question — Obama has succeeded in toppling one of the most loathsome creatures on the international stage.
Obviously, he didn’t do it alone. Our NATO allies and, of course, the rebels deserve the lion’s share of the credit. And there are quibbles and critiques one can offer. We may even grow nostalgic for the devil we knew, though I doubt it.
Still, if Obama were a Republican, he would be getting considerably more praise from the right for pursuing a relatively low-cost and low-risk NATO-led strategy that resulted in long-desired regime change in Libya. (Of course, had he been a Republican, many on the left would have denounced yet another neocon war for oil.)
Obama also deserves kudos for taking out Osama bin Laden and for his mounting successes in killing other members of al-Qaeda.
And yet, there’s something peculiar about Obama’s foreign policy: There doesn’t seem to be one. Talking about Libya, Ben Rhodes, the director for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told the New York Times: “We’ve resisted the notion of a doctrine, because we don’t think you can impose one model on very different countries; that gets you into trouble and can lead you to intervene in places that you shouldn’t.”
This strikes me as wildly overstated, even bizarre. A doctrine, in and of itself, doesn’t compel anyone to do anything. Moreover, some doctrines — isolationism, for instance — can lead you to not intervene in places you should.
Rhodes’s anti-doctrine stance reflects an irony about the Obama presidency. Shortly after Obama’s swearing-in, and his initial executive order to end coercive interrogation techniques, and his (failed) vow to shutter the Guantanamo Bay prison, the conventional wisdom in Washington quickly jelled around the view that Obama didn’t much care about foreign policy, or at least that he preferred to keep it out of the headlines while he concentrated on his “transformative” agenda at home.
His administration committed itself to downplaying the War on Terror. Remember the effort to rebrand 9/11-style terrorist attacks as “man-caused disasters”?
The surge in Afghanistan barely appeased hawks, while his rhetoric about withdrawal barely pleased doves. Former CIA super-lawyer John Rizzo tells PBS in an upcoming episode of Frontline that with the exception of ending the interrogation program, Obama “changed virtually nothing with respect to existing CIA programs and operations.”
In fact, to the chagrin of many on the left, Obama has strengthened these programs by making them bipartisan and uncontroversial.
Even Obama’s momentous decision not only to continue but to massively expand the policy of targeted killings has an oddly cautious flavor to it. If you obliterate terrorists with a drone, you don’t have the messy political question of how to arrest, jail, interrogate, or prosecute them.
Obama’s Libya policy may not amount to a doctrine, but it did establish two principles. In March, Obama explained that we must intervene when there’s a risk of massacres or genocide, but we can never do so alone unless Americans are directly at risk.
At face value, I find this borderline repugnant. America shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, but neither should we make it a matter of principle to say we won’t stop genocide when and where we can simply because no one will join our posse.
One has to marvel at the audacity of Obama’s cautiousness. It buys bravery on the cheap by saying we must do something, and then exempts us from having to do anything if we’re alone in our principles. Cross your fingers and Belgium will save us from acting by ourselves!
This principle means that we can do diplomatically or politically easy things (like Libya), but if it’s hard to get support for something — like Syria — we’re off the hook.
More broadly, it’s remarkable how Obama’s reactive and risk-averse foreign policy has racked up political successes, while he’s made a colossal political mess for himself at home by concentrating his energies and talents on a bold agenda. Maybe his domestic-policy shop could take some lessons.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter@JonahNRO. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.