Apparently the President is an utter failure at foreign policy. More and more voices are growing shriller and shriller that this is the case. Maybe so, maybe no; that’s a bigger issue than I plan on tackling. A lot of the criticism, though, in my opinion, derives from a belief that if the President isn’t throwing American military power around the world, he isn’t doing his job. Because that is what most critics seem to want: send the troops in and build a democracy. Because that worked so well in Iraq… It comes down to a seriously flawed understanding of the utility of force–what you can and can’t accomplish with military power.
A recent example of this short-sightedness appeared yesterday in Commentary, “A Revolution Betrayed,” by Max Boot, a pundit whose work I always find stimulating, even when I disagree with it. Apparently we should have poured “blood and treasure” into Libya a few years ago, as if we had the money, manpower, or political will for that. “Leading from behind”? Perhaps. What I remember most clearly about the U.S. refusal to take the lead, though, were very clear messages to the European nations that this was in their back yard, so it was not up the United States to boss the situation. Boot’s article begs the question, if the stakes are so high, if it’s that important, why aren’t European nations doing what he says the United States should be doing? So far, I’ve found a couple European Union programs that are explicitly a civilian effort, and seem to be long out of touch with the situation on the ground. One focuses on borders, the other is a country brief from the External Action Service. That’s about it, unless someone can point me to peacekeepers, advisers, and the like from Italy, France, Germany, etc. The main fear in Europe is refugees, particularly to Italy, whose infrastructure (such as it is) is being overwhelmed. It’s a simplistic question, but isn’t a stable Libya very much in European interests? If so, why not do more than simply patrol the Mediterranean?
And who’s to say that advisers and peacekeepers are going to work anyway? Work to what end? Work how long? Work to ends that are actually attainable? I’m hardly a Libya expert, but my long study of warfare inclines me to think that the President’s use of military force during his two terms has mostly been conditioned by a keen sense of its limits, and, after ten years of war, a clear return to the Nixon Doctrine, which doctrine reflected, I think, some clear political thinking about military power when it was announced on July 25, 1969 (full transcript of Nixon’s remarks here). Even the strongest nation in the world couldn’t sustain conflicts forever simply on an ideological mandate. Military force wasn’t a panacea, but a policy tool whose utility was entirely situational. It could solve some problems, but not others, and reflexively insisting on its use simply wasn’t/isn’t responsible statesmanship.
So, by all means criticize the President if you wish. But please don’t do so from the naive assumption that American military force is the solution to the world’s problems. War is never that simple.