Foreign Policy reports that President Obama decided last Tuesday evening to intervene in Libya after a “highly contentious” meeting. This contrasts to some extent with the administration’s posture in regard to Tunisia and Egypt. And it displeases some:
“In the case of Libya, they just threw out their playbook,” said Steve Clemons, the foreign policy chief at the New America Foundation. “The fact that Obama pivoted on a dime shows that the White House is flying without a strategy and that we have a reactive presidency right now and not a strategic one.”
I literally don’t know what this means. First, perhaps the reason why “the playbook” changed in Libya was that Qaddafi was sending in tanks to murder his own people, and that unlike with Egypt and Tunisia, we had a very contentious if not hostile relationship with Libya, despite more recent detente.
And that leads to the second problem: this opposition of “reaction” and “strategy.” Clemons surely understands that the United States does not control events; there are 6 billion people in the world, more than 150 governments, and the United States is not a unipolar power. Put another way, part of being “strategic” is that you have to react to events. There’s no other way.
Foreign policy analysts love to genuflect at the memory of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State. Acheson never thought that South Korea was in the vital interests of the United States; neither did anyone else. But when confronted with the sort of naked aggression unleashed by the North on June 25, 1950, the administration felt it had no choice. Should it have watched as the North Korean communists took over the whole peninsula?
Maybe the administration saw this as a relatively cheap way to get on the side of the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world. True? Maybe not. Maybe it will be a disaster. But that won’t be because it is “reactive”. If it works, then someone will later call it “opportunistic.”
George W. Bush was “strategic.” As Stephen Colbert wisely noted, “He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!” Is that better?
Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better once we stop throwing around words like “strategic” or “reactive” — or for that matter, “realistic”, “principled,” “leadership”, or “tough.”