Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts. Founded by Mark Kleiman (1951-2019)
“Reactive” versus “Strategic”? Please.
Foreign policy analysis will get a lot better when we stop using flatulent phrases like “strategic”, “reactive,” “leadership” or “realistic.”
Foreign Policy reports that President Obama decided last Tuesday evening to intervene in Libya after a “highly contentious” meeting.Â This contrasts to some extent with the administration’s posture in regard to Tunisia and Egypt.Â Â 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.Â 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.”Â 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.Â Put another way, part of being “strategic” is that you have to react to events.Â There’s no other way.
Foreign policy analysts love to genuflect at the memory of Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s Secretary of State.Â Acheson never thought that South Korea was in the vital interests of the United States; neither did anyone else.Â But when confronted with the sort of naked aggression unleashed by the North on June 25, 1950, the administration felt it had no choice.Â 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.Â True?Â Maybe not.Â Maybe it will be a disaster. Â But that won’t be because it is “reactive”.Â If it works, then someone will later call it “opportunistic.”
George W. Bush was “strategic.”Â As Stephen Colbert wisely noted, “He believes the same thing Wednesday as he did on Monday, no matter what happened on Tuesday!”Â 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.”
Author: Jonathan Zasloff
Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees.
Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses.
Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.
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