Christopher Dickey in the Daily Beast has tough criticism of the president’s handling of the Arab uprisings and of his foreign policy generally. He sees Obama as:
a brilliant intellect who is nonetheless confounded by events, a strategist whose strategies are thwarted and who is left with almost no strategy at all, a persuasive politician and diplomat who gets others to crawl out on limbs, has them take big risks to break through to a new future, and then turns around and walks away from them when the political winds in the United States threaten to shift.
Much of the Libya criticism in the piece is valid. If the stated strategic aim of our intervention was to protect vulnerable civilian populations from slaughter, well why did we immediately hamstring that mission with a list of caveats that make its realization impossible? If we have a UN-mandated responsibility to take "all necessary measures" to protect innocent civilians, and if this is a U.S. strategic and humanitarian imperative as the president argued, then why no direct targeting of the Gaddafi regime? Why no arms support to the rebels? Why foreswear the use of ground troops at the outset?
It’s likely that some or all of those things are bad ideas—I sure don’t know—but the perils of a half-assed, "do-something" strategy have been evident from the very beginning. As Napoleon said, "If you start to take Vienna——take Vienna." To tiptoe into a fight after going out of your way to announce that you will be keeping one arm tied behind your back, is to telegraph failure, or as in the Libya case, to all but ensure protracted stalemate. You prolong the very humanitarian crisis you intervened to prevent. And bungling Libya also poisons any chance of making a salutary precedent out of the idea of multilateral internationalist humanitarian intervention.
The muddled Libya policy aside, criticisms of the president’s foreign policy often are animated by the mistaken idea that the American president is omnipotent. It is a serious error to see the unfolding crisis of rebellion and violence in the Middle East as something that can be shaped and molded by the right combination of magical American presidential words and actions. This error is unfortunately widespread. It leads to nutty editorials like this one from the Washington Post, which accuses the president of "shameful inaction" in the face of Assad’s atrocities in Syria, yet never quite gets around to saying what the desired "stronger response" would entail. All we learn is that the situation would somehow markedly improve if only the president would "repudiate Mr. Assad" and get serious about "support[ing] the aspiration of Arabs for greater freedom." Helpful.
The Dickey piece makes the same error of at once accusing the president of being ineffectual and insisting that he is all-powerful:
[These patterns] were evident from Year 1 of the Obama presidency in his excruciating deliberations over the Afghan surge, in the hand extended ineffectually to Iran, and the lines drawn in the sand, then rubbed out and moved back, and further back, in the dismal, failed efforts to build a Palestinian peace process.
I must ask, does Dickey notice that these three issues—Afghanistan, Iran, and Israel-Palestine—also somehow managed to escape easy resolution by all of Obama’s predecessors in office? In Afghanistan do his "excruciating deliberations" really strike you as the main strategic impediment behind our ongoing troubles in that country? Was President Bush’s famous disdain for measured deliberation the reason that the Afghan war enjoyed such a stellar success from 2001-2009? Or in our ongoing thirty-year cold war with the theocrats of Iran, is the major problem really that Obama "extended his hand ineffectually"? If only he had chosen to extend it effectually! Gosh why didn’t that silver bullet idea come up in all of those excruciating deliberations! And to blame Obama for his "dismal failed efforts to build a Palestinian peace process," well I don’t know what to say. I guess the idea is that the way to solve the most intractable conflict in modern history is for the American president to just resolve to make non-dismal, non-failure inducing efforts. Good tip.
I understand, and share, the sincere desire to help the brave dissidents across the Middle East who are rising up to demand and seize better lives for themselves and their kids. And I understand feeling impotent in our inability to steer events toward outcomes we prefer, and projecting that inability onto our elected officials. I supported the Libyan mission knowing the high liklihood of a muddled outcome. I am sure the administration felt the same way. But we can’t just criticize the sub-optimal Libya policy and then indignantly demand that the president "do something" and "get tougher" in Syria or elsewhere. (Incidentally, Tyler Cowen once noted that anyone who insists that "get tougher" is the elusive solution to a stubborn problem is axiomatically full of crap; as if none of his predecessors ever thought to do that.)
I do not know how to keep Bashar al-Assad from repressing and murdering and maiming his own population. His family has employed versions of this governing style for forty years. I desperately wish I did know. But I am very clear that the answer to this problem, and to innumerable other problems around the world, is not to be found in words spoken or unspoken, deliberations undertaken or aborted, or hands extended or withdrawn, by the president of the United States. It’s too bad, I know. If things were that easy, well, they’d be a whole lot easier wouldn’t they.