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On President Obama’s “Libya Triumph”

Michael Tomasky’s latest dispatch, “President Obama’s Libya Triumph,” is embarrassingly dim-witted. Among Tomasky’s many utterly inane assertions:

1. President Obama’s handling of the recent turbulence in the Middle East resembles the approach favored by President George H.W. Bush vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Please. Every policy springs from an idea or theory about how the world is, how it ought to be, and what the United States can or must do to progress from the one to the other. George H.W. Bush and Barack Obama may have arrived at a similar “what” — they may have employed restraint to arrive at some unstated goal — but that was largely accidental. The “ought” to which Bush subscribed, which was the same “ought” to which every president since Truman had subscribed, was that of a world free of authoritarianism, including Soviet authoritarianism. Not surprisingly, the “what” — the policy —that emanated from that “ought” was the same policy other presidents had employed, that of containment. By contrast, President Obama’s “ought” has been vaguely etched (see point No. 2) and, at most, seems defined by a general sense of (or support for) American retreat. How else should we interpret the president’s Iranian olive branch, Russian “reset,” jettisoning of plans for a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and his widely reported criticisms (while overseas) of U.S. foreign policy. (Partisans can debate whether these amount to an “apology.” What matters is that they signal retrenchment.) In other words, Bush’s reluctance to meddle in Soviet affairs and Obama’s uncertainty about how to handle the Middle East may bear some superficial resemblance. But just beneath that veneer reside great differences in attitude toward America and American power. To draw any parallels is to confuse the meaning of both men’s actions.

2. Obama should be praised for his “doctrine of no doctrine.” According to Tomasky, Obama is wise to avoid hewing to some set of principles that might prevent him from seeing the nuances that separate one country from another. Actually, this is a terrible idea. Indeed, Tomasky misses entirely the whole point of doctrines, which have much less to do with other countries and their nuances and much more to do with our own. Presidents articulate visions for America not to describe a situation in some faraway land or how America ought to behave when that faraway land misbehaves. They do so to communicate to the whole world who, exactly, we are, and what we believe in. This is critical because it bolsters the democratic process — Americans should know what ideas inform their president — and because, ideally, it strengthens relations with our allies while putting our foes on alert. A doctrine is not a policy; it is a value system. Presidents and their advisers may apply that doctrine well or badly — they may derive good or not so good policies from their doctrines — but we should not confuse the two.

3. While Libya was a good war, intervening in Syria would be bad. When it came to Libya, Tomasky says, the United States had an “R2P,” or “responsibility to protect.” (This is a frightening bit of shorthand. Will pundits soon start writing exclusively in Twitterese?) Since the Assad regime has not threatened to massacre thousands of Syrians the way Gaddafi threatened to massacre thousands of Libyans, the United States has no R2P in Syria. Interesting that. The United States has a checkered history when it comes to defending humanitarian interests abroad. That’s because, not unreasonably, our presidents have avoided humanitarian interventions that did not also serve some non-humanitarian cause. Never mind Assad (who may not be overseeing a genocide but is willing nonetheless to murder plenty of his own people). What about the many countries we have declined to bomb (or are declining to bomb) because doing so would undermine other U.S. interests? Where was President Obama in Darfur? The Ivory Coast? And when, exactly, does an “R2P” begin and end? Are there parameters to our moral obligations? Or is President Obama’s “doctrine of no doctrine” so nuanced or elastic — or unprincipled — that it’s impossible to say? The U.S. intervention in Libya not only marked an abuse of power (The president promised this would last days; it’s been months; if anyone’s upset about that, consult with White House counsel.), it also made American intentions, in the Middle East and elsewhere, murkier. It confused; it complicated. (This was exacerbated by the president’s odd, apparently contradictory comment that the United States now “leads from behind.” How does one do that?) No, the truth is that Libya cannot be so easily delimited from Syria. U.S. involvement in the one makes it that much harder to avoid the other — or to say, clearly and convincingly, why it is we do the things we do. The president hasn’t explained that much to the American people.