Commentary Magazine


The Dog Eating Obama’s Foreign Policy Homework

With Americans now being evacuated from Libya on a chartered ferry, we can presumably expect to hear from President Obama soon on the topic of Qaddafi and his atrocities against his people. That, at least, is what Hillary Clinton seemed to suggest yesterday. The president was maintaining his silence because Americans were in a vulnerable position in Qaddafi’s territory.

There’s always an excuse. It usually sounds plausible, if you don’t examine it too closely. But I’m not the only one to whom it occurred that there is a remedy for imperiled Americans, and it involves the U.S. armed forces performing one of their core missions. A non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) is one of the most basic things the military does, and there is nothing militaristic or even unusual about expecting to see signs of it.

Americans are getting out of Libya now, however, and anyone who posited the need for an NEO is likely to hear a chorus of explanations that things were apparently under control all along and that Obama must have known that no force deployments were necessary. It would come off as mean-spirited, I imagine, to point out that Obama’s tactical silence — if that’s what it is — would therefore seem to have been prompted by an exaggerated fear.

This administration enjoys breathtaking latitude to respond to foreign-policy issues with defensive triangulation. One of its principal allies is the modern public’s unfamiliarity with history; another is the sense of the post-post-colonial era that, while everything may still be the West’s fault, nothing is now its problem. Opinion media and the public know instinctively that something is missing, but they can’t quite name what they expect to be different.

What’s missing is leadership. Having a plausible explanation for everything is the opposite of leadership; it’s defensive navigation through situations shaped by others. Another of the Obama administration’s recent foreign-policy actions, although unrelated to the turmoil in the Middle East, illustrates my point succinctly. On Monday, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador in Moscow to express displeasure about the American position on Japan’s claim to the disputed Kuril Islands. Our embassy spokesmen correctly noted that the position hasn’t changed since 1952. But they went on to offer this unparsable excuse for the summoning of our ambassador: “U.S. officials said the entire incident resulted from a misunderstanding in which an old Washington policy line was presented by the Russian media as a recently issued statement.”

Old line or recent statement, our policy is still in conflict with Russia’s — which is why Russia objects to it. Why offer excuses? We can support our ally Japan in a dispute with Russia if we want to. Just like Libya, we are a sovereign nation, with all the rights of one. Sticking up for our policies, politely but firmly, is what we have diplomatic representation for.

Yesterday, after Somali pirates killed their American hostages, Michael Rubin came out in favor of bombing the pirate enclaves in Puntland. I’m guessing he knows we won’t do that. But it’s increasingly clear that regardless of what Team Obama fails to do in foreign policy, it won’t be because of principle or priorities; it will be because of the ravenous, homework-eating dog that prowls the State Department.