Obama's "deer-in-the-headlights" doctrine


U.S. President Barack Obama gives a press conference at the White House in Washington on March 11, 2011.


NIcholas Kamm

NEW YORK — Hesitation will kill you.

At some point in everyone’s life — after a near miss crossing a busy street, a bad decision to hold onto that AIG stock or losing at love — someone rolls out that old platitude.

Well, President Obama, your time has come.

Over the past month, your administration’s performance on foreign policy has gone from relatively good (relative, that is, to the train wreck that preceded it) to chaotic.

It’s never easy to be the guardian of a corrupt status quo — even when that status quo, like “moderate” authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, appears to benefit your country and its allies. Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

The tragic earthquake and tsunami that has ravaged Japan has little effect on all this except to highlight the unbelievable pace of events that have transpired since the New Year. American military forces, many based in Japan, will offer humanitarian aid, and Obama has expressed his grief on behalf of America.

Yet the tsunami battering America is elsewhere. No one could have predicted the wave of unrest that 2011 brought across the Middle East, and you’ve stayed on the surfboard through some fairly tough twists and turns. But the failure to provide real support to the rebels in Libya, who have attempted to rid the Earth of arguably the most irrational of all the region’s regimes, has landed you face down on the beach.

When the Arab League, notorious for its allergy to the right side of history, joins a chorus internationally in favor of a U.N. no-fly zone over Libya, there is no longer much of an excuse to drag one's feet. Let French, British, Egyptian, Algerian and Italian jets do the patrolling. We can help with refueling tankers and stay at arm’s length, if that’s your concern.

And yet the U.S. prevaricates.

The shame of it all, Mr. President, is that you recovered so nicely after an understandable moment of flat-footed policy panic when Tunisians drove their corrupt and abusive leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, from power.

On Egypt, your clearly learned your lesson.

It started badly, though, as your State Department dispatched a Cold War warrior, the former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Frank G. Wisner, to handle these very post-Cold War negotiations.

Wisner’s public insistence that Mubarak must stay in power for the sake of stability reminded me of the dying pronouncements of East Germany’s government in November 1989, another moment when History overwhelmed government hacks.

Luckily, Wisner got the hook quickly, and someone apparently muzzled Vice President Joe Biden, too. On Feb. 4, a day after Biden said “I would not refer to him as a dictator,” you apparently noticed the shadow that History was casting. You announced a review of U.S. aid and said Mubarak would have "to meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

This hardly undoes more than three decades of helping the man stay in power, but as such diplomatic pirouettes go, not bad.

It’s not as if you haven’t been busy, I hear you say in your sternest (though quite polite) tone. And yes, just over two years ago, as you took the oath of office, you inherited a foreign policy mess as poisonous as any handed to a new president in U.S. history.

Pale as they did next to the economic disaster George W. Bush bequeathed you, the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan — plus the damage their mishandling had caused to America’s world standing — demanded immediate attention. Given the stakes, merely cauterizing these wounds would have counted as something of a victory.

Your Afghan “surge,” which went over among your Democratic base like a reading of Das Kapital at a Nuremberg rally, nonetheless has reversed the slide toward defeat there. The fresh legs have put the Taliban back on its heels and opened the possibility of a withdrawal at some point in the not-too-distant future that, at least, doesn’t automatically guarantee the return to power of Osama bin Laden’s friendly hosts.

But the job is far from finished: the Taliban may show renewed strength as the snows melt in the Hindu Kush, and your administration has proven as incapable as its predecessor of rooting out corruption in Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government. A B- then for you here, with signs of improvement.

In Iraq, you’ve benefitted from an eleventh hour dose of sanity among the Bushies, who finally in 2007 provided CENTCOM with enough resources (“the surge”) and allowed military leaders enough room to maneuver (the “Sunni Awakening”) to quell the insurgency and move the country — tentatively — toward stability. With regard to Iraq, the best one can say is that you’ve done no harm, though the jury remains out on your crowd-pleasing decision to telegraph a U.S. withdrawal, a move that may merely have frozen the civil war temporarily. Still, given what might have been, an A- here.

On other important items, the bag is very mixed indeed. China’s inexorable rise demands that the U.S. put its economy, most of all, in order. Your 2012 budget proposal failed spectacularly to acknowledge just how broke the United States is.

Proposing a “freeze” of discretionary spending right now freezes the trajectory of U.S. decline in place. America’s advantages — the open society required to feed innovation, an unassailable military advantage, a reasonable (even after Iraq) foreign policy record of doing the right thing internationally when all else fails — require that we don’t lose the ability to occasionally spend money on something unforeseen. Your 2012 budget (and, to be fair, the equally lame Republican alternative) is a one-way ticket to second-class status within a few decades, and politically timid, too.

Now, you did successfully “reset” relations with Russia, backing away from an idiotic standoff over missile defense started by the Bush administration. Nothing with Russia is a pure win, of course: Moscow now feels it won a “staring match” with the United States, and will act more aggressively toward its smaller former Soviet neighbors as a result.

Yet the Russia reset, plus some careful diplomacy with China, has helped coordinate more effective sanctions against Iran’s nuclear arms-seeking regime. For the first time ever, really, Iran’s economy is feeling the pinch.

But you allowed your desire to engage that regime to overwhelm America’s best instincts, providing only tepid support when the Green Movement rose to challenge the stolen reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Sadly, this was a missed opportunity to make a statement that would have put the United States a lot further out in front of the wave of popular democracy that’s now sweeping the Middle East. Your miscues on Iran two summers ago, however, mean that, instead of viewing the United States as a potential source of inspiration, most seeking to dislodge Arab autocrats view Washington as willing to put the status quo above its own rhetoric: i.e., that democracy is a universal right.

The good news: It’s a big world, and there’s always the last gasp hope of all American presidents – the  Middle East “peace process” — to distract you from reality. For now, though, better to put U.S. power behind the right cause in Libya before it’s too late.

People in Libya — and in Bahrain and Jordan and even Saudi Arabia — don’t care much whether their demands for freedom are convenient for America. When they show the guts to make those demands publicly, if the United States lifts no finger to help, it fails morally and, eventually, it will fail politically too.