Commentators here and elsewhere have dissected the belated strengths and considerable weaknesses of the president’s speech on Libya. But no one has noted that the speech is yet another piece of evidence that this administration regards foreign policy as a problem to be overcome as rapidly as possible, not as an enduring challenge with serious consequences. Barack Obama remains eager to get to the serious business of domestic policy.
Before he was elected, Obama displayed no serious interest in foreign policy. Nor – except for his childhood travels – did he have any substantive experience abroad. The only post-World War II presidents who could compete with him in this regard are Carter (hardly an encouraging comparison) and Clinton (who had the good fortune to be elected in the supposedly placid 1990s). The foreign policy lesson he learned from his predecessor was very simple: if you want to keep your presidency alive politically, avoid Iraq. The frequency which with he harps on that lesson testifies to its power.
The result is that Obama’s foreign policy has been marked by three trends: avoid leadership, seek stability, and – above all — keep foreign policy off the front pages. On Iran, on Sudan, and on Russia, Obama has sought to work with the tyrant in charge. In the nuclear realm – the one area where his interests appear to be definitely engaged – he did his best (successfully) with New START to pretend that nothing very exciting was going on. Even in matters like the Argentine claim to the Falklands, or the constitutional revolution in Honduras, or pressuring Israel on settlements for the sake of satisfying the Palestinians, his approach has been to try to make the problem go away as fast as possible.
This policy inevitably involves a certain amount of disdain for our allies: they are the ones who must be sacrificed for the sake of the world’s dissatisfied powers — who are by and large hostile to us. Regularly, Obama has made the wrong choice, and regularly, his administration has been forced by political and strategic realities to recognize that this approach won’t work. In Afghanistan, the 2011 deadline has quietly become 2014. Guantanamo is still open. The president’s powers – contrary to Candidate Obama’s claims – do allow him to commit U.S. forces to action in Libya.
But the instinct remains unchanged. Having been pushed into a war – pardon me, a kinetic military action – in Libya, the president cannot be seen to hand it over fast enough, even if in reality the U.S. will still be doing most of the heavy lifting. He justifies this by arguing that it is time for the international community – that polite fiction – to carry the weight. But in spite of base-pleasing gestures like rejoining the UN Human Rights Council, this administration has shown very little serious interest in international institutions, except when (as with those concerned with climate change) they can assist in achieving some domestic objective. Nothing that is likely to happen in Libya can be similarly helpful. Thus, in North Africa, the president was last in and first out. All his rhetoric and balancing of Monday night cannot disguise the fact that he wants to run away. He believes that an active and visible foreign policy is a vote loser.
And the thing is that, most of the time, the president may be right about this: if Libya disappears from the front pages, he won’t lose in 2012 because of it. But every once in a while the world drops a problem into the lap of a president that he can’t wish away. North Africa may still be that problem. Or it might be Syria. But it is a sure bet that, unless Obama has Clinton’s luck, his policy of dodging, denying, and delaying is one day going to run foul of Harold Macmillan’s nightmare: the fact that events keep on happening.