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On Libya, losing time, and listening for divine footsteps

On Libya, losing time, and listening for divine footsteps

On Friday the Obama administration at last announced that the United States will now recognize the Transitional National Council as the legitimate government of Libya. This was the right thing to do. It helps make available an estimated $30 billion in frozen assets for the Libyan rebels, and will help bolster international support for the TNC and further isolate the outlaw Qaddafi. Many questions remain on implementation, as Josh Rogin notes, but even these implementation issues illustrate how diplomatic recognition bears important substance as well as symbolism.

While recognition was a welcome move, it was also much belated. The United States could have done it as long as four months ago when France first led the way, when recognition arguably would have had more impact in decisively shifting momentum against Qaddafi. Instead of leading the multinational coalition, the United States is once again following (insert the obligatory "leading from behind" crack here). Now, as this Wall Street Journal editorial points out, the United States is the 27th nation to recognize the Libyan rebels, in the footsteps of countries such as Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Italy, Australia, and Spain. Even Luxembourg did it ahead of us.

Wise and effective statecraft depends much on developing the right policies. But statecraft also depends on a less appreciated factor, and that is timing. It is not always enough to do the right thing, but to do the right thing at the right time. In other words, in foreign policy it is not just what you do, but when you do it.

Here a continuing puzzle of this Administration is its sense of timing. Previously as a political candidate, Obama displayed an appreciation for timing that was both acute and artful. He discerned the political gestalt, and capitalized on it in a way that catapulted an otherwise previously obscure law professor and state legislator first into the U.S. Senate and then almost immediately into the White House.

Yet somewhere along the way, in the transition from campaigning to governing, the Obama White House forgot to sync its clock. This was manifest in domestic and economic policy with the mistaken investment of political capital in the health care bill rather than a jobs agenda. On foreign policy, the administration’s deficiencies have been most pronounced as miscast timing. In fact, as in the case of Libya, the Administration often arrives at a sound policy — yet only when it is too late to be a game-changer. So also with Iran, when the White House sat passively on the sidelines during the 2009 Green Movement protests, only to belatedly offer public presidential support for the Iranian reformers two years later and after the regime had squelched the leading dissidents. Or Syria, where the administration stuck dogmatically to its public posture of hope that Assad would reform, while his henchman locked up, tortured, and killed the opposition.

Poor timing is not just a matter of misreading history and arriving late, but it can also mean mistaken sequencing and taking certain steps too soon. For example, many of the Administration’s much-hyped "outreach" efforts in its first year to regimes like Iran, China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Burma, were flawed diplomatic gestures in part because they came before the White House had first taken needful steps such as reassuring U.S. allies, and asserting American strength and resolve towards the regimes in question. Taking those steps first would have generated more respect for the White House’s gestures and created more fruitful conditions for eventual diplomatic outreach. Or consider the administration’s clumsy treatment of Israel. Whatever one may think of the White House’s various pressure gambits with the Israeli government — such as publicly demanding a settlement freeze, or unilaterally calling for the 1967 borders framework as a precondition for negotiations — a big reason why these steps failed (besides their dubious merit) is because they came before the White House had established a framework of trust with the Israeli leadership and made clear its firm commitment to Israel’s security. Not to mention the lack of a Palestinian leadership able and willing to deliver as a negotiating partner. Timing problems can also come from listening to the wrong clock, as seems to be the case with the administration’s recent decision-making on Afghanistan, shaped more by the 2012 electoral timetable rather than the military’s assessment of the security clock.

None of this is easy. Reading time and the course of history is notoriously elusive, but it is essential to the best statecraft. Bismarck famously observed, "a statesman cannot create anything himself. He must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment." As the White House wrestles with a full agenda of vexing challenges, perhaps it should start listening a little harder for divine footsteps.