Step Away, Do Nothing, Pat Self on Back

It looks like the Obama administration has found its grand strategy after all.


Let’s get this straight: The Western governments that overthrew Muammar al-Qaddafi but declined to disarm the militia that would predictably wreak havoc in Libya are now condemning the efforts of allied regional governments intervening to stanch the rise of Islamists who are dictating political outcomes contrary to election results. So we are now in favor of continued violent squalor for Libya? Because that is what our policy amounts to. 

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, two countries that know a little something about the way Islamists can hijack democratic processes and that are directly threatened by fundamentalist parties fomenting violence in frayed political communities, have evidently conducted airstrikes in Libya, in support of the elected government, to degrade the military forces of Islamist militias. These are the very sort of airstrikes we conducted in Libya and are conducting in Iraq. Meanwhile, the United States government, and the governments of Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, issued a statement calling on all Libyan parties to accept a cease-fire and engage "constructively" in the democratic process, "abstaining from confrontational initiatives that risk undermining it."

No doubt this lukewarm missive will deservedly draw exasperated responses from regional governments and the "Arab street," as it exemplifies how we who live in coddled safety condescend to people facing urgent problems. It takes no responsibility for setting in motion the current violence by removing the government without ensuring that its successor had the ability to control its territory. It takes no notice of the fact that the government of Libya is too weak to disarm militias itself. And it offers no appreciation for the American allies willing to commit military force in assistance of the elected Libyan government. 

This is not to defend the repressive domestic policies of either Egypt or the UAE. It is simply to say that if U.S. government strategy is to lead from behind, we have to recruit and reward allies willing to step forward. Libya is urgently in need of such assistance, as are the forces fighting Bashar al-Assad’s butchery in Syria and the Islamic State’s rampaging barbarism in both Syria and Iraq. It may be morally satisfying to the Obama national security team not to dirty their hands with imperfect allies, but as the novelist George Eliot instructs, "The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men."

Obama administration officials spent much of the spring and summer trying to position themselves as grand strategists. The president’s West Point speech was the test drive of their revised national security strategy. It cautioned that "our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences — without building international support and legitimacy for our action, without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required." The speech was panned by both the right and the left, precipitating a reconsideration of releasing the National Security Strategy on which it was based (the last was delivered in 2010); it sounds even more laughably self-satisfied in light of the costly mistakes their "restraint" has occasioned in Libya, Syria, and Iraq.

The White House likes to defend its inaction by reiterating that there are no good options. And that is true, although it is not newly true. Windows of opportunity open and close, as Helmut Kohl famously worried about German unification. Options get better and worse with time and with opportunities taken and missed. But the Obama administration’s philosophizing is cold comfort to the people experiencing the consequences of our inaction. We should beware buying another whole generation of mistrust from the people of the Middle East by our callous indifference to their problems and solipsistic attempts to ennoble our inaction. 

If there actually is an Obama Doctrine — and it’s a debatable point, given the contradictions in the administration’s policies — it is this: Step back, criticize others who step forward, and laud our own moral superiority for doing nothing. Meanwhile, Islamist militias have encircled Tripoli and taken control of the airport. The Western governments that signed the statement encouraging a cease-fire are setting Libya up for continued humanitarian catastrophe and themselves up for another rush-to-the-crime-scene intervention. America is not incapable of devising and executing grand strategy. But the Obama administration evidently is.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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