Presidential Pettiness

Does taking swipes at predecessors make a foreign policy?

In the less-than-gracious way President Barack Obama compares himself to his predecessors and other mere mortals, we’ve come to expect oblique swipes at President George W. Bush. They’ve been sprinkled in Obama’s inaugural address (“we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals…our power alone cannot protect us”); in prime-time addresses (“the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world…I’ve spent this year renewing our alliances”); in his Cairo speech (“Iraq was a war of choice…there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq”); in his Ankara address (“Turkey’s democracy is your own achievement…not forced upon you by any outside power”); and now in his belated address to the nation announcing U.S. intervention in Libya. But what’s most intriguing about this address is that it took a swipe not only at Bush, but also at President Bill Clinton.

First, let’s look at what we’ve grown accustomed to, the verbal backhands at the Bush administration. Obama boasted that the Libya operation “carries with it a UN mandate and international support…If we tried to overthrow Khadafy by force, our coalition would splinter.  We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground to accomplish that mission, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs and our share of the responsibility for what comes next. To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq…regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives and nearly a trillion dollars.”

We should hope that Obama is able to oust Khadafy without putting U.S. boots on the ground, but he should know that once war begins mission creep is hard to contain. Just ask the elder Bush, who wanted a clean, clear-cut finish for the Gulf War, but ended up intervening in Kurdistan, occupying Saudi Arabia and unwittingly setting the stage for what amounted to a 20-year engagement in Iraq. And while we’re being blunt, we went down a very different road in Afghanistan, and yet even with a UN mandate and responsibility spread out among some 45 countries, regime change has taken 10 years, thousands of allied and Afghan lives, and hundreds of billions in treasure—and it’s still not over.

“American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves,” Obama added, an undeniable reference to the media myth contrived about his predecessor.

In fact, at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 35 countries contributed troops. Fully 21 of the European Union’s then-25 members supported the campaign in Iraq. Seventeen NATO members deployed troops to Iraq. NATO has been training Iraq’s army for the better part of a decade now. As late as 2007, after four years of war, 20 countries still had troops in Iraq. In short, Iraq was anything but unilateral—and hardly lacking in “international support.”

In defending his decision to intervene in Libya’s civil war, Obama intoned, “The writ of the United Nations Security Council would have been shown to be little more than empty words, crippling that institution’s future credibility to uphold global peace and security.”

That’s almost exactly what Bush said about the UN’s fecklessness over Iraq. “The conduct of the Iraqi regime is a threat to the authority of the United Nations,” he warned in September 2002. “Iraq has answered a decade of UN demands with a decade of defiance. All the world now faces a test and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment. Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence?”

Yet all of that has been airbrushed out of Obama’s version of history.

Now, let’s take a look at Obama’s subtle attack on the Clinton administration’s foreign policy record. “In just one month,” Obama gushed, “the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners.”

Wow. That’s almost on par with his 2008 Berlin speech, when the ever-humble Obama predicted that his election would mark “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal…when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.”

But it wasn’t enough for Obama just to hail his achievements in Libya. To drive home the point, he needed to contrast his record with the lesser men who sat in the Oval Office before him: “To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.”

There’s the swipe at the Clinton administration. What Obama didn’t say or doesn’t care to learn is that in Bosnia, the Europeans kept America at arms length. A leading European diplomat typified the European view in this first post-Cold War crisis by calling Bosnia “the hour of Europe.” Washington took the hint and stepped aside. It would be a fateful decision. As historian William Pfaff notes in The Wrath of Nations, “In the Bosnian crisis, the United States didn’t act, so everyone failed to act.”

In other words, an unspoken reason the Europeans were cajoling Washington to get involved in Libya was the Balkan debacle.

Obama’s goldilocks approach to the office he holds—that he has somehow struck the perfect balance that eluded his predecessors—is not only dripping with hubris, but it also conveys a kind of myopia usually reserved for college kids. As a self-described “student of history,” Obama should know that history didn’t begin on January 20, 2009.

A more appropriate, more gracious, more politically effective approach to take in announcing the Libya intervention—in addition to seeking Congressional authorization before seeking the endorsement of the Arab League and UN—would have been for Obama to concede that his administration is learning from the precedents set by earlier administrations; that his preferred method of moral suasion and apology tours was no more effective at making the world’s rogues compliant than Bush’s hard-line approach; and that the world doesn’t magically bend to America’s will because of the pleasant sounding words of a president.

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.

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