President Nuance

March 28th, 2011

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If the United States does not act, nothing happens. That’s been the main rule of international politics since World War II. It’s what President Clinton meant when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address in 1997, “America stands alone as the world’s indispensable nation.”

What would have happened if the United States failed to act after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990? Most likely, nothing. Kuwait would now be part of Iraq. Having acted decisively in Kuwait, the first President Bush left the crisis in Bosnia to the Europeans. Bosnia was in Europe’s backyard. The U.S. had no vital interests there. So what happened? Nothing. The Europeans failed to act, and a new horror entered the world’s vocabulary: “ethnic cleansing.” Finally, the U.S. felt morally compelled to step in and lead a coalition to end the brutality.

When atrocities occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur, the whole world – including the United States – looked away. So nothing happened. President Clinton ended up apologizing for America’s failure to act in Africa.

The rule is still operative. It is unlikely that anything would have been done to stop Muammar Qaddafi’s murderous reprisals in Libya if the United States had not played a leading role. U.S. leadership gave political cover for the UN Security Council and NATO and even the Arab League to authorize military action. France and Britain could not have done it without us.

President Obama has taken it upon himself to test a corollary to the rule. The corollary says: if the U.S. does act, it cannot be a limited commitment. It has to be total – or nothing.

Does it? The Obama Administration is testing the idea that, in situations where the U.S. has limited interests, it can make a limited commitment. The U.S. clearly has limited interests in Libya. Defense Secretary Gates said so on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” Libya “was not a vital national interest to the United States, but it was an interest,” Gates said.

The U.S. is clearly making a limited commitment. The Administration says this is not a war. It is a “kinetic military action,” one that is “time-limited, scope-limited…in concert with our international partners.” The White House insists the goal is not regime change, even though President Obama said early on, “It is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go.”

After an initial show of force that demolished the Qaddafi regime’s air defenses, the U.S. turned over military control to NATO. The Administration insists that Libya will be a short-term commitment, not a long-term engagement. President Obama has pledged that no U.S. ground troops will be used.

The American foreign policy establishment is outraged. The Obama Administration seems to be deliberately ignoring the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq (and Lebanon and Somalia).

The Council on Foreign Relations is the foreign policy establishment (yes, I am a member). The president of the Council wrote about Libya in Politico, “There is little evidence that any of this has been thought through…The United States cannot and should not intervene is every internal dispute where bad or even evil is on display.” The Council’s director of studies told The Washington Post, “In some sense, the President right now has put himself in the position where he is a hostage to the actions of others.”

Writing in The Daily Beast, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council, blames what he calls the “terrible duo” of neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian interventionists for pushing the United States into a conflict where it has no vital interests. “The reason why neither President Obama nor his coalition partners in Britain and France can state a coherent goal for Libya is that none of them have any central interest in the outcome there,” Gelb declares.

In The Washington Post, Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, which is published by the Council, cites how different Presidents from Woodrow Wilson to Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush have violated one or another of the “best practices” for success in warfare (set out your vision for the outcome, define your goals precisely, prepare backup plans in case things go wrong). Rose writes, “In this first war…that President Obama can truly call his own, his Administration seems determined to best its predecessors by violating all of the maxims simultaneously.”

The issue is this: can the United States make a limited commitment, using limited resources, for a limited goal? The foreign policy establishment says no. It has to be a total commitment or nothing. President Obama seems determined to show that the answer can be yes. Because the alternatives – either doing nothing or leading an all-out invasion of a third Muslim nation – are unacceptable.

In fact, President Obama sees Libya as setting a new model for military intervention. “This is precisely how the international community should work,” the President said last week, “as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law.”

Obama’s style is to be President Nuance. That’s the antithesis of George W. Bush, who was contemptuous of nuance. Obama has taken a nuanced approach to many policies. He bailed out the auto companies but pledged to get rid of the responsibility as quickly as possible. He wants to put a brake on deficit reduction until the economic recovery is on firmer footing. He won health care reform but is now willing to grant waivers to states that don’t want to buy into the new law. And in Afghanistan, he escalated the military commitment and at the same time, pledged to begin withdrawing forces next summer.

Predictably, the President’s leadership is being criticized as tentative and uncertain. Why doesn’t he fight for his principles? What does he really believe? That’s one reason why the tea party backlash emerged. The tea party insists on leadership by principle – no nuance, no compromise.

There’s only one way President Obama can sell his approach to policymaking. It has to work. The economy has to recover. He has to show progress in reducing the deficit. The health care system has to improve measurably. And Libya has to be seen as a success.

Success means Qaddafi has to go. The consequences of leaving him in power, even over part of a divided Libya, are too dangerous. He has shown himself capable of instigating acts of terror against the U.S. and the West. His rump state could become a base for al Qaeda. Most of all, Qaddafi must go because President Obama has said he must go. Anything short of his ouster cannot be seen as a success.

But it has to be done by Libyans, not by Americans. Otherwise, what former Secretary of State Colin Powell once called “the Pottery Barn rule” takes effect – “You break it, you own it.” If the U.S. decides the outcome of the Libyan civil war, the U.S. becomes responsible for putting Libya back together. Just as we already are in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, it has to be done with few or no U.S. casualties. Americans draw the line at military intervention when they start seeing Americans get killed (see Somalia).

A limited intervention need not set a precedent. If the U.S. bombs Libya and demands the ouster of Qaddafi, why shouldn’t the U.S. bomb Syria and insist that President Bashar al-Assad be overthrown? Assad is murdering unarmed protesters in his own country.

The difference is that the United States has bigger interests in Syria. Syria is key to a comprehensive peace plan in the Middle East. And to resolving the political impasse in Lebanon. The Obama Administration is dealing differently with Syria because it is a more complex situation. One that calls for greater, well, nuance.