Thursday, March 17, 2011

Jimmy Carter Redux -- The Wilting of Obama

When the opportunity to change the world for the better is dropped into the lap of a president, what should he do? Seize the historic moment to make the world a better place? Or dither? Obama has chosen dithering.

Has he had an emotional breakdown? According to news reports, rather than wrestle with world problems and direct them toward outcomes that are good for everyone except some brutal dictators, he's going to Rio. Has his desire to duck the biggest revolutionary change the world is likely to see for many many years evidence that he's had enough of being president?

After saying he thought it would be easier to be the president of China, it looks as though he's fed up and willing to concede the next election even before America goes to the polls. That's good.

The Collapse of Internationalism The Obama foreign-policy team utterly fails its first real-world test in Libya.


Not the 28 members of NATO, not the 15-member U.N. Security Council, not the 22 nations of the Arab League could save Libya's rebels from being obliterated by the mad and murderous Moammar Gadhafi. The world has just watched the collapse of internationalism.

The world's self-professed keepers of international order, from Brussels to Turtle Bay, huffed and puffed, talked and threatened. And they failed. Utterly.

But what we've watched is not merely the failure of the gauzy notion of "internationalism." It's more specific than that. What has collapsed here is the modern Democratic Party's new foreign-policy establishment.

Barack Obama is the first Democratic president to assemble a foreign-policy team made up entirely of intellectuals who for years have developed a counter-thesis to the policies of presidents extending back to John F. Kennedy. We are in a "post-American world," they have argued, in which the U.S. is obliged to pursue its interests in concert with the rest of the world's powers, never alone.

The uprisings against autocracies in 10 separate Middle Eastern countries, a crisis inherited from no one, was their real-world test. In Egypt, they fumbled. In Libya, they have failed.

The poster boy for this internationalist view is White House deputy Ben Rhodes, who told a reporter last week: "This is the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world—to work through multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified."

Days later, bemused Libyan rebel spokesman Essam Gheriani remarked in Benghazi: "Everyone here is puzzled as to how many casualties the international community judges to be enough for them to help. Maybe we should start committing suicide to reach the required number."

Mr. Rhodes' view isn't just briefingspeak. The new Democratic theory of the proper U.S. role in the world was articulated in a July 2008 document, "Strategic Leadership: Framework for a 21st Century National Security Strategy." It described itself as "an intellectual and policy blueprint for the next administration."

Its authors included James B. Steinberg, who is now Mr. Obama's deputy secretary of state; Ivo Daalder, now U.S. ambassador to NATO; and Anne-Marie Slaughter, until a month ago the State Department's director of policy planning. Susan Rice, who is now our ambassador to the United Nations, wrote the preface.

Their blueprint, a tour of the world's regions, counsels constant multilateral cooperation, institution-building and consultation. While it admits U.S. preeminence, it is largely a meditation on the limits of American power and authority. This is the document's final, summarizing sentence: "And such [U.S.] leadership recognizes that in a world in which power has diffused, our interests are best protected and advanced when others step up and at times lead alongside or even ahead of us."

In the Middle East, no one has stepped up, no one is leading alongside and our allies are in the rear, accomplishing nothing while they wait for . . . America.

This was a test case, and what we have seen is that a world in which the U.S. doesn't unmistakably lead is a world that spins its wheels, and eventually the wheels start to come off. When the U.S. instructs the Saudis not to intervene in Bahrain, and the Saudi army does precisely the opposite, the wheels are coming off the international order.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times this week, "Fiddling While Libya Burns," the recently departed State Department planner Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote a cri de coeur on behalf of doing something for Libya. "The United States and Europe are temporizing on a no-flight zone," she wrote. It was a remarkable call to action—until the final two paragraphs. She concludes that the U.S. "should ask the Security Council to authorize a no-flight zone," (by asking Russia and China to abstain). If that works, then with the Arab League, we "should assemble an international coalition to impose the no-flight zone." Finally, failing all that, we should work with the Arab League to give the Libyan opposition "any assistance it requests."

But Benghazi will be dead by the time this calibration grinds down to Ms. Slaughter's bottom line. After Mr. Obama met with his national security team Tuesday, with Gadhafi one demolished town from Benghazi, the White House said, "The President instructed his team to continue to fully engage in the discussions at the United Nations, NATO and with partners and organizations in the region." Barack Obama is following their blueprint to a tee.

In a better world, James Steinberg, Ivo Daalder and Susan Rice would join Ms. Slaughter in resigning and calling for action to save Benghazi from outside the government. Being inside is manifestly useless. They are defaulting the U.S. into a dangerous irrelevance.

Libyan rebel commander Mohammed Abdallah, in bombed-out Ajdabiya, put the spike into them Tuesday: "The hands of the international community are covered in blood." But the "international community" was never much more than a academic abstraction, and blood, as always, can be washed off.

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