Media Update: I spoke on a local radio show on the Libya intervention. Please go here to listen; the media player half-way down the page (with the green label in Korean) plays back the interview. My comments begin around 14:00.
Call me a shill, but I am really warming up to Obama, at least on foreign policy most of the time. (He’s not yet serious about the debt though – but the neither is the GOP.) I thought this speech was an excellent example of a toned, measured foreign policy that fits US constraints (the huge debt, 2 other wars that no one likes, the rise of the rest) with US values (preventing massacres, trying to help others to democracy) and tries to embrace world opinion rather than strut. So well done.
1. There were no rousing calls to arms, American dominance, American exceptionalism, etc. This is probably the part the US right hated. They can’t forgive Obama for refusing to call America exceptional, and once again he showed yesterday that he really does see the US as part of a community of states, not someone standing above it as the most awesome place in world history with special privileges to tell others what to do. I don’t know why this angers Americans so much. Can’t we see that all this does is humiliate others and convince them that we are jerks? All you need to do is travel a little outside the US to see how much non-Americans find the discourse of American amazingness grating, insulting, pointlessly antagonizing. I see this all the time teaching Asians – who have their own long history they think makes them pretty great and unique too. What is wrong with talking to other as if we are normal and like them? Humility is a value too.
The US is just 3% of the world’s population. Lots of other countries – Iran, China, Russia, France, 19th C Britain and Germany – believe they are exceptional too. In an age of nationalism this is to be expected, but what is the actual value to all that, other encouraging people’s worst, most parochial chauvinistic attitudes about the country in which the were randomly born? This doesn’t mean the US can’t lead; I certainly agree that US dominance is reasonably benign (thank W that we even have to argue for that point though now). And the world is generally a better place for US leadership. But even the US makes mistakes – including really big ones like Iraq 2 or Dresden. So not posturing globally as the most awesome place, somehow entitled to special rules to intervene in other peoples business, strikes me as mature, adult, serious. As I have said before, if we want other to follow American leadership, we can’t do that by embarrassing or humiliating them that somehow America is uniquely positioned to overawe the planet. You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that will drive other people crazy. Besides, we don’t even have the resources or rep to talk like that anymore anyway. Bush and the Iraq told the whole world that American exceptionalism is just arrogance and hubris. It is in America’s interest to adjust to that and try follow the rules.
2. The speech explicitly defended saving countless lives in Benghazi. This was always the most important reason to go in – to prevent another Srebrenica. I can’t understand why the president and other western leaders aren’t getting HUGE credit for this. Once again, the West has prevented a mass slaughter (also in Bosnia and Kosovo – all Muslim populations it is worth noting too). Yes, we didn’t stop other slaughters, and we can’t do everything, but we did this, and it was good and right. This is real Western or American exceptionalism – we saved defenseless people from a madman. China wouldn’t have done that. I can think of few US uses of power of which Americans should be more proud. When people claim the US is a nasty, expansionist, torturing empire, we have counter-evidence now too. And the Germans should be downright embarrassed they abstained. I still have not read any convincing anti-intervention arguments on this issue.
3. Obama roughly fit US limited power to global expectations and rules. You hardly need to be a historian to know that US power is on the ropes at the moment. US debt is spinning out of control, the recession is brutal, the rise of the rest, especially China, limits our room to move. In such an environment, unilateralism’s costs go up, and Obama was right to state that very bluntly. Instead of Bush-style ‘mission accomplished’ machoismo, he said we are doing the best we can in a tough position, and that our reluctant hand was forced by the likelihood of a bloodbath. Isn’t that exactly the kind of leadership everyone wanted after 10 years of Bush and war and national exhaustion and division? How many people, in the US too, called for that for year as Iraq burned? This is why I don’t understand all the carping about Obama dithering or leading us into a quagmire. Doing the best we can in tough circumstances is a pretty good compromise response to a very hard issue. That is enough, at least for now, no?
4. A lot of the criticism strikes me as mean-spirited or trite. I like Krauthammer most of the time, but I thought calling this the ‘professor’s war,’ was just nasty – and not just because I am a professor supporting it (a fair riposte I suppose). I presume that means that trying to follow the UN rules, trying to go through international organizations like NATO, trying to build real coalitions of the willing, is some namby-bamby girlie man response to a war. Real men just kick a— with the 82nd Airborne, I suppose. But didn’t we learn from Bush that going from the gut is super-risky? How about the measured use of force that displays some contemplation of risk and reward? And isn’t it nice that we have some real allies this time around. Sure, they won’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, but compare Iraq 1 and 2. The first time through, the coalition of Bush 41 helped limit the cost and fallout of anti-Americanism. Lots of thinking and effort went into that. Then consider the course of Iraq 2.
Next, a lot of the talk about quagmires and exit strategies seems awfully overheated to me this early in the game. As Kaplan notes, relax, we are just in the first week of this. It’s not Vietnam all over again, and the president made a strong commitment to avoid ground troops. So let’s cut him some slack to deal with a very hard issue. Conflict are never, ever clean – even the Iraq 1 blitzkrieg we all remember so fondly lead to a nasty semi-civil war in Iraq.
Finally, what’s up with this ridiculous ‘tough girls’ critique? How thoroughly irrelevant to anything, so just let Sjoberg walk you through how crude and practically insulting that is to the serious female advisors around Obama.
This flippancy, plus the general failure of realists to admit that Obama just saved, perhaps, 10,000 people, tells me that Obama more or less got it right. The best critique I have read of the ‘Obama Doctrine’ is here. The most serious problem going foward for any Obama Doctrine is the consistency problem. As one of my commenters has noted over the last few weeks, doesn’t the responsbility to protect (R2P) mean we should go to Ivory Coast next?