Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Foreign policy in color

An MSNBC report tonight from NBC News’ Ron Allen in Jordan, unconfirmed but intriguing just the same, has it that Iranian security forces are assisting the Syrian security apparatus in suppressing a popular uprising on the streets of Syria. If that’s true (Allen’s source was a man who claimed to have this knowledge), it would be a game-changer in the current upheaval in north Africa and the Middle East — pointing to a disturbing collaboration among regional dictators for the purpose of quelling popular revolt.

It'd also further validate the moral urgency of the Obama world-view vis-à-vis the Middle East, a philosophy President Obama expressed Monday night at National Defense University, in a speech that explained and defended the attack on the Libyan government, and the United States’ role in that hostile action — quite probably a war in utero — in terms both humanitarian and practical.

The critics of the speech weighed in and piled on. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, the everhawk in the Senate, got on the air shortly after the speech. “To say regime change is not going to take place by force, I certainly can’t agree with it. [Gadhafi’s] a danger to the world, and the longer he stays in power the more dangerous he becomes.” McCain told CNN. Fox News wind machine and political personality Sarah Palin® did much the same thing, in a boilerplate right-wing disquisition that didn’t advance the conversation by so much as an inch.

"The president's focus on NATO's leading role in the operation offered no assurance that American military men and women as well as American resources will not continue to play a very large part in the days to come,” Georgia GOP Rep. Tom Price told The Wall Street Journal.

Much of the criticism found in a fast and random survey of opinion pages tended to focus on the lack of certainty about the American involvement in Libya. The president’s critics wanted the comfort of assurances and certainties, clear lines of go and no go despite the fact and impact of events still unfolding on the ground. Susan Page, columnist for USA Today, seemed to distill the thinking of the speech’s critics earlier tonight on “Hardball”:

“It’s not exactly a clear, bright, primary-color kind of doctrine,” she said. “I think you could read that entire speech and not be clear on exactly the circumstances that you command U.S. military response and those that would not.”

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Without meaning to, Page’s assessment points to the intelligence of the Obama geopolitical philosophy. She intends it as a slam to say Obama’s thinking is “not exactly clear, bright, primary-color” without realizing that’s exactly what’s required in a profoundly unsettled, unpredictable world.

The United States can’t afford the luxury of enunciating static, monochromatic foreign policy in a world that long ago disabused itself of the notion of things in black and white.

Foreign policy isn’t that simple — hasn’t been since the end of World War II, when the triumph of the Allies, the reconfiguring of the modern world and the specter (real and perceived) of The Communist Threat made it easier to chop up the world in stark and binary shades.

For better and worse, the modern world is animated by any number of competing principles and ideologies; the United States’ place in that world is subject to the ways our values and interests mesh with — or clash with — those principles and ideologies.

Just as important: the ways in which United States grapples with how our values and interests mesh with or clash with each other.

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From the available evidence in this, the first major military operation bearing his administration’s brand, Obama’s emerging philosophy is one grounded in caution (albeit a sometimes maddeningly slow caution); consultation with regional neighbors and their representatives, and the United Nations; a willingness to seek consensus; an equal willingness to move fast and efficiently; a resistance of the reflexive use of force as a first resort; an embrace of the full American arsenal, including sanctions, embargoes and diplomacy, to effect a solution; and a refreshing reluctance to templatize solutions for use across the Middle East, for the sake of a cosmetic, politically palatable consistency.

These may be the “guiding principles” he set out in his book “The Audacity of Hope” as a possible solution to the foreign policy “ad hoc decisions” of the Bush White House. This may be the kernel of any so-called Obama Doctrine (an initiative for which the word “doctrine” seems, well, too doctrinaire to contain the tolerance for necessary improvisation and smart response).

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Page thinks the Obama speech betrayed a lack of certainty about when to exercise American military might and when not to. Frankly, it damn well better. How could a president be certain of when and how to use that military muscle before the need arises? The fact that Obama has no ready, automatic tripwire for taking military action isn’t a flaw or a problem; it’s the implied intention to respond to a threat in a way that’s consistent with the scope of the threat, or with whether it’s a threat at all.

How unlike the foreign policy of the previous eight years, captivated by a knee-jerk rush to judgment, a unilateral cowboy bravado that alienated our friends and emboldened our enemies. That one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter, with-us-or-against-us doctrine (promoted by a president who probably couldn’t say “nuanced,” much less do it) is one we’ll be paying for for a long time. It’s nothing we should be eager to repeat.

President Obama said as much to NBC News’ Brian Williams in an interview tonight. “What is absolutely true is that when you start applying blanket policies [to] the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

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In conventional terms, we may not be so close to the endgame in Libya. Latest reports have rebel advances repelled by a steady counterattack by Gaddafi’s forces, reversing the impressive gains made over the weekend. The relatively sudden end of air support from NATO forces is apparently the reason why.

The tide of battle shifts, and shifts again. The process in which the United States has negotiated the details of this offensive with those with skin in the game (the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council), and worked with NATO and the United Nations on implementing it, has a lot of moving parts. Its cultural sensitivity rubs up against our prejudice for Western interpretation; its complexity frustrates our desire for simplicity and the immediate certitude of cause & effect.

Page is right, it’s not “primary colors.” What it is, or appears to be, is an intelligently cautious, regionally sensitive, internationally collective approach to fighting a known threat to thousands of people, someone whose actions may have already crossed the line into “crimes against humanity.”

Clarity of outcome can’t precede the event that makes clarity of outcome possible. In a world of a fractious rainbow of ethnicities, loyalties and animosities, foreign policy in primary colors isn’t nearly colorful enough.

Image credits: Obama: Pete Souza/The White House. Susan Page screengrab: "Hardball,": MSNBC. Big Three at Yalta, February 1945: public domain. Audacity of Hope cover: Vintage Books. Bush: White House portrait. Map of Libya: CIA Factbook.

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