“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.  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.”

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.

17 thoughts on ““Reactive” versus “Strategic”? Please.”

  1. Can we talk about the oil (and natural gas)? No?

    Popular press discussion of foreign policy engages in the equivalent of sports talk, because their job is to obscure. And, when the discussion gets to assertions that “we had no choice”, then they have succeeded in completely shutting down any critical thinking.

  2. Clemons is a long-standing fan of Qaddafi. Just look over the history of his posts on Libya in past years.

  3. “Principled!?!” What a quaint notion. Yeah, let’s throw away any attempt at principle with respect to policy foreign or domestic.

    Wait! we already did that, and it’s working so well.

  4. Pure pro-active strategy:

    1) The no-fly zone is widely supported by Americans.
    It is good politics and will help in Obama’s reelection.

    2) It pokes a finger in the eye of the guy who ordered Lockerbie.
    More good politics.

    3) It puts a lie to the idea that “we are broke.”
    A door has opened and wafting out is this aroma:
    If we can afford to bomb afar, we can afford food stamps at home.

    I’ve always said, in a thought most of you will vile and even murderous:
    If Obama has to start a war to be reelected. So be it.
    This was the perfect war to start against the perfect enemy at the perfect time.

    Lastly as some explanation for the above:

    Why does an Obama critic like myself support his reelection even it requires a war?
    Because Obama and his administration support science. The other party does not.
    Science is the only thing going forward that can save humanity and the planet from a dire future.
    We are going to need genetic engineering big time to program microbes and plant cells to pull carbon out of the air and make fuels more efficiently.
    There is no other way forward and upward…
    Without science we are headed for a colossal crash.

    That all this comes at the expense of Qaddafi is a good deal indeed….

  5. @larry birnbaum: Really? Links? Who could be a fan of Qaddafi’s?

    The problem isn’t so much the use of the word “reactive” — Obama is reacting — but the idea that reacting and strategy and are mutually exclusive.

  6. Good strategy consists mostly in being prepared to react effectively. It’s the General putting his troops into a favorable position on the field of battle, before the enemy attacks, or the Colonel training the troops in effective tactics.

    If Obama’s Administration should be criticized on the grounds suggested (and I have no idea or information), I would think the argument would rest on timing and decisiveness. As soon as Ben Ali left Tunisia, Gaddafi was obviously going to be in serious trouble. I cannot imagine that that wasn’t the instant estimate from the CIA and the State Department. If the Administration and the UK, France and Italy, were immediately looking for the main chance, and getting military assets into place, and communicating thru back channels with the Libyan military, then I might nod my approval at judicious risk-taking.

    On the other hand, if all dithered about, clearly surprised by events, focused on PR (“what message are we sending to the Arab street”?), until Gaddafi had secured his military base of support and moved to crush the rebellion, well, then, I would think their performance rather poor.

  7. Larry birnbaum: You’re right, that is a peculiarly positive take on the Libyan despot.

  8. Frankly, after Bush II and the Iraq war, FP magazine and everybody writing for it can be cast into the inferno, for all I care.

  9. Could we please retire the phrase “murder his own people”? It has the stink of Iraq all over it.

    What Qaddafi was about to do was to suppress a rebellion. It happens all the time. Very frequently it entails killing a whole lot of innocent people. The usual reaction to this from the international community is to avert their eyes. Sri Lanka, for example. I don’t recall the US intervening in any country, ever, to prevent an internationally recognized government from suppressing a rebellion. You can argue that it’s the right thing to do, but don’t pretend that it’s not something unprecedented.

  10. Clemons obviously knows little or nothing about how the US Government works. In foreign policy there are only a few real “playbooks” or scripts to which we stick, year in and year out. The “special relationship.” NATO. Strategic arms reduction. A two-state solution in Palestine. Qaddafi’s crisis was a target of opportunity at which there was clearly no shortage of nations wishing to weigh in. Being careful and waiting on events makes sense in this situation.

  11. Look, Bloix, it’s obvious that we’re going after this guy not only because he’s a murderous tyrant — there are alas plenty of those — but because he is universally hated, is an enemy of ours, someone who has killed Americans, and because we can.

    So what? He’s a murderous tyrant, he’s universally hated, he’s an enemy of ours, he’s killed Americans, and we can, is a fine set of reasons for doing what we’re doing, and plenty more.

    Unless, you know, your preference is for an America that never exercises it’s power. Which characterizes plenty of people who think themselves liberals, unfortunately.

  12. lb: “He’s a murderous tyrant, he’s universally hated, he’s an enemy of ours, he’s killed Americans, and we can . . .”

    What compels people to forget the oil?

  13. You don’t respect Steve Clemons now, but when he shows you the whitey tape, you will have to admit you were wrong. I mean seriously, what does a guy have to do to not be taken seriously here ?

    One should engage the people with whom one disagrees who have not demonstrated that they are irresponsible idiots. Debating Steve Clemons is stealing candy from a baby.

  14. “Could we please retire the phrase “murder his own people”? It has the stink of Iraq all over it.”

    Well, yeah, the stink of a ruler who murders his own people. Why the hell should we retire a phrase which all too accurately describes what governments too often do? Maybe you’d prefer a euphemism? “‘retires’ his own people”? “Sets his own people to pushing up daisies”?

    “What compels people to forget the oil?”

    Well, yeah, there’s that, too, in addition to all the numerous reasons why he’s been deserving of a bullet in the back of his head for years. What, you never heard of doing well while doing good? Granted, it would be nice if we’d occasionally off murderous tyrant who wasn’t sitting over a valuable resource. But I, for one, am not going to complain much when it finally happens to one of the many deserving candidates.

    A declaration of war would have been nice, though. Pity the President couldn’t be bothered.

  15. “we’re going after this guy not only because he’s a murderous tyrant — there are alas plenty of those — but because he is universally hated, is an enemy of ours, someone who has killed Americans, and because we can.”

    Oh, really. Univerally hated, an enemy of ours. I see reality has once again gone down the memory hole.

    August 15, 2009:

    “A delegation of US senators led by John McCain met with Libya’s leader yesterday to discuss the possible delivery of nonlethal defense equipment. The visit and Washington’s offer of military equipment was another sign of the improving ties between the former longtime adversaries.
    “We discussed the possibility of moving ahead with the provision of nonlethal defense equipment to the government of Libya,” McCain said during a press conference.”

    Joe Lieberman and Lindsay Graham were on that trip.


    And how about the return of the Lockerbie bomber and the BP deal to explore for oil:

    “The Tony Blair agreement was signed during his global farewell tour.
    It coincided with an announcement by oil giant BP that it was returning to Libya after 30 years in an oil and gas exploration deal. Mr Blair said: “A few years back, Britain and Libya could never have had this relationship.” The previous year, Colonel Gaddafi’s eldest son completed an engineering and management degree at Liverpool University. These events showed the scale of Libya’s dramatic rehabilitation in the eyes of the West.”


    Not to mention the French arms sales, Aug 3, 2007:

    “Libya has signed contracts with France to buy anti-tank missiles and radio communications equipment worth $405m (£199m), Libyan officials have said. The arms agreement is Libya’s first with a Western country since a European Union embargo was lifted in 2004.” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6928880.stm

    All swirling, swirling down the memory hole.

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