Obama Can't Win for Winning

Lessons from Libya

You have to ask: If unemployment were now at 6 percent, would President Barack Obama be getting pummeled for not having us back to full employment already?

The question comes to mind in the wake of the Libyan rebels' successes against Qaddafi. It's remarkable how reluctant Obama's opponents are to acknowledge that despite all the predictions that his policy of limited engagement could never work, it actually did.

Let it be said upfront that the rout of Qaddafi was engineered not by foreign powers but by a brave rebellion organized inside Libya by its own people.

But that is the point. The United States has no troops in Libya, which means our men and women in uniform do not find themselves at the center of -- or responsible for -- what will inevitably be a messy and possibly dangerous aftermath. Our forces did not suffer a single casualty. The military action by the West that was crucial to the rebels was a genuine coalition effort led by Britain and France. This was not a made-by-America revolution, and both we and the Middle East are better for that.

What NATO and its allies did do, as Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller reported in the Washington Post, was to help the rebels "mount an aggressive 'pincer' strategy in recent weeks, providing intelligence, advice and stepped-up airstrikes that helped push Moammar Qaddafi's forces toward collapse in Tripoli."

Sounds like a successful policy to me.

Yet no good Obama deed goes unpunished. In the midst of the bracing news, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a statement saying, well, too bad that Obama got it wrong.

After heralding the rebels' achievements, they could not resist adding this: "Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower." Less than six months and no American casualties were obviously not good enough. Should we have done this the way we did things in Iraq?

But perhaps the two Republicans were embarrassed for their party, which was split between those who thought Obama was wrong for not doing more and those who said he should not have intervened at all.

"Once again, we in the United States have not defined what we believe the outcome should be," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in March. "The fact is we cannot afford more wars now." Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman recently declared that "we have no definable interest at stake, we have no exit strategy."

Oh, and who can forget the commentary that Obama was "henpecked" into intervening by "these Valkyries of foreign affairs"? The latter is the memorable phrase foreign-policy writer Jacob Heilbrunn used to describe the three women in Obama's administration -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and key adviser Samantha Power -- who favored intervention.

Writing on National Review's Web site, Mark Krikorian concluded that the lesson of Obama's decision-making was that "our commander in chief is an effete vacillator who is pushed around by his female subordinates."

In light of this, it's worth paying tribute to one former Republican official willing to give Obama a little credit.

"I was among those who were critical of the position of 'leading from behind,''' L. Paul Bremer III, former President George W. Bush's envoy to Iraq, told the Los Angeles Times. "I think as a general proposition that's not a good position for the U.S. to be in. On the other hand, I think the outcome should give the administration some degree of satisfaction. After all, it worked." Yes, it did.

What should Obama take from this? He needs to learn the difference between middle-ground policies, which flow from his natural instincts, and soggy, incoherent compromises with opponents who will say he's wrong no matter what happens.

Obama used the greater freedom he has in foreign policy to define the middle ground in the Libyan case on his own terms. "It's true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," Obama said in March. "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."

That made a lot of sense. Obama should remember that steady moderation is very different from continually looking around to see if he can accommodate opponents who won't be happy until he's back teaching law school. 

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

RelatedTurmoil in the Middle East, by the Editors
On the Tightrope, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels
A Just War in Libya? by David Cortright

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).



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Obama should be getting an A for getting allies to do some of the heavy lifting in Iraq. Now how about getting the Swiss into the act about setting Iraq on a democratic path. Six million Iraqis, seven million Swiss; Iraq has oil. Swiss none. Iraq has tribes; Swiss have Germans, French and Italians. [tribes may be easier]]. How do we get the Swiss to send  teams /delegations of government advisors to Iraq.?? Scandinavians should be on the team also. NO AMERICANS PLEASE. 




Correction...Put in Libya where dopey me said Iraq... geeze.

Needed to be said, EJ. Good stuff. It doesn't fit the right's "Jimmy Carter narrative", so they are flailing to explain. EJ, you should also see the new wikileaks that puts McCain's critique in an even more audacious light.

Is there any doubt that the whole Arab Revolution would not have happened had not Obama given his speech in Cairo early in his administration? It sent a message to the Arab world that we were not going to be hostile to their culture or unconditionally support despotic leadership. Nor were we going to impose Western style democracy on them as a condition for providing aid. To the contrary, Obama promised that the US would support their efforts to achieve more freedom, independence, and economic growth on their own terms. There are still many challenges in that part of the world - and so many things could still go wrong, but I believe we are on a good path. 

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