Commentary Magazine


A Breathtaking Work of Staggering Amateurishness

In a Washington Examiner article entitled, “Obama’s dilemma: Why Libya and not Syria?” Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations is quoted as saying: “It has mystified me and others as to why the administration has been so slow-footed [in Syria]. The administration certainly set a precedent in what it did in Libya . . . and now [it] seems to be passing up a tremendous strategic opportunity.” Cook went on to add, “No matter how hard they try to say Libya doesn’t reflect a precedent, there’s no doubt that it does. I think [administration officials] are confused and caught by a precedent they hoped they would never have to address.”

That seems like a reasonable surmise. For weeks the administration has attempted to answer why they have involved the United States in Libya but not Syria. And it has yet to offer a coherent explanation (the argument that Assad is a reform is ludicrous).

What we’re seeing are the (severe) limitations of an administration that prides itself on defying traditional categories and ideologies. In 2006 Barack Obama, shortly before he announced his bid for the presidency, said he thought America should pursue a ”strategy no longer driven by ideology and politics but one that is based on a realistic assessment of the sobering facts on the ground and our interests in the region.” He would deal with countries on a case-by-case basis. Obama had convinced himself he was empirical and pragmatic rather than rigid and ideological.

“This spring, Obama officials often expressed impatience with questions about theory or about the elusive quest for an Obama doctrine,” Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker. “One senior Administration official reminded me what the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan said when asked what was likely to set the course of his government: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ ”

Lizza went on to write: “Obama has emphasized bureaucratic efficiency over ideology, and approached foreign policy as if it were case law, deciding his response to every threat or crisis on its own merits. ‘When you start applying blanket policies on the complexities of the current world situation, you’re going to get yourself into trouble,’ he said in a recent interview with NBC News.”

What we’re seeing now instead is a president who has, with rare exceptions, shown startling ineptness and confusion in approach foreign policy as if it were case law. In one country after another, we’re seeing amateurishness in both conception and execution. The Obama administration does not seem capable of theorizing, of geopolitical sophistication, of thinking beyond tactics—and even then, its tactics are often wrong, slow, and/or weak.

The president and his team have not shown evidence of any strategic design. At the outset of the administration they took pride in ad hocery. What they’ve succeeded in doing is giving improvised and makeshift reasoning a bad name.