By E.J. Dionne Jr.
You have to ask: If unemployment were now at 6 percent, would President Obama be getting pummeled for not having us back to full employment already?
The question comes to mind in the wake of the Libyan rebels’ successes against Moammar Gadhafi. It’s remarkable how reluctant Obama’s opponents are to acknowledge that despite all the predictions that his policy of limited engagement could never work, it actually did.
Let it be said upfront that the rout of Gadhafi was engineered not by foreign powers but by a brave rebellion organized inside Libya by its own people.
But that is the point. The United States has no troops in Libya, which means our men and women in uniform do not find themselves at the center of—or responsible for—what will inevitably be a messy and possibly dangerous aftermath. Our forces did not suffer a single casualty. The military action by the West that was crucial to the rebels was a genuine coalition effort led by Britain and France. This was not a made-by-America revolution, and both we and the Middle East are better for that.
What NATO and its allies did do, as Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller reported in The Washington Post, was to help the rebels “mount an aggressive ‘pincer’ strategy in recent weeks, providing intelligence, advice and stepped-up airstrikes that helped push Moammar Gadhafi’s forces toward collapse in Tripoli.”
Sounds like a successful policy to me.
Yet no good Obama deed goes unpunished. In the midst of the bracing news, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham issued a statement saying, well, too bad that Obama got it wrong.
After heralding the rebels’ achievements, they could not resist adding this: “Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Gadhafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our air power.”
Less than six months and no American casualties were obviously not good enough. Should we have done this the way we did things in Iraq?
But perhaps the two Republicans were embarrassed for their party, which was split between those who thought Obama was wrong for not doing more and those who said he should not have intervened at all.
“Once again, we in the United States have not defined what we believe the outcome should be,” Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said in March. “The fact is we cannot afford more wars now.” Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman recently declared that “we have no definable interest at stake, we have no exit strategy.”
Oh, and who can forget the commentary that Obama was “henpecked” into intervening by “these Valkyries of foreign affairs”? The latter is the memorable phrase foreign policy writer Jacob Heilbrunn used to describe the three women in Obama’s administration—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and key adviser Samantha Power—who favored intervention.
Writing on National Review’s website, Mark Krikorian concluded that the lesson of Obama’s decision-making was that “our commander in chief is an effete vacillator who is pushed around by his female subordinates.”
In light of this, it’s worth paying tribute to one former Republican official willing to give Obama a little credit.
“I was among those who were critical of the position of ‘leading from behind,’ ’’ L. Paul Bremer III, former President George W. Bush’s envoy to Iraq, told the Los Angeles Times. “I think as a general proposition that’s not a good position for the U.S. to be in. On the other hand, I think the outcome should give the administration some degree of satisfaction. After all, it worked.” Yes, it did.
What should Obama take from this? He needs to learn the difference between middle-ground policies, which flow from his natural instincts, and soggy, incoherent compromises with opponents who will say he’s wrong no matter what happens.
Obama used the greater freedom he has in foreign policy to define the middle ground in the Libyan case on his own terms. “It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs,” Obama said in March. “But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”
That made a lot of sense. Obama should remember that steady moderation is very different from continually looking around to see if he can accommodate opponents who won’t be happy until he’s back teaching law school.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group
White House / Pete Souza