Remember the good old days in American defense policy a decade ago, when President Bush could decide to invade a far-away country that few Americans had ever heard of, and get a 90 percent approval rating — not to mention nearly unanimous support from the global community? All it took was a devastating attack by terrorists on the American homeland. Things are different now. Bush did such a good job of preventing follow-on attacks after 9-11 that fear of attacks from the Islamic world barely registers at all today as a concern among voters. In fact, voters are more worried now about the cost of continuing U.S. military involvement in places like Iraq and Afghanistan than they are with the danger that anti-American violence might originate there.
That’s why Bush’s successor is having such a tough time of it in Libya, trying to find the middle ground between ignoring atrocities and intervening in a civil war. It’s not that anybody in Washington likes the famously eccentric Colonel Gadhafi, who has transformed his desert nation into a peculiar combination of police state and tribal kleptocracy. It’s just that he hasn’t attacked us lately, and we are oh so weary of the heavy lifting U.S. troops have been doing further east since the new millennium began. So some elements of domestic opinion want to avoid the cost of another Middle East military campaign, while others just want to take Gadhafi out and be done with it. Near as I can tell, Republicans would like to do both things. Or neither. Oh that’s right, they’re concerned about the “precedent” this establishes for intervening in other places.
Sometimes it seems like President Obama is the only adult in this debate. He sees that America can’t stand by as a brutal dictator massacres civilians on Europe’s doorstep, but he also sees that almost none of our friends in the world’s biggest oil-producing region are democrats, and that they won’t stay our friends if we take the side of any rabble that manages to seize control of the streets. In addition, he understands that our European allies lack the necessary mechanisms to coordinate military action in Libya without American participation, and grasps the consequences that would follow if Gadhafi emerges from the current operation unbowed. Obama is doing his best to minimize U.S. involvement in Libya, but he realizes that if America acts too risk-averse, it will undercut the message of resolve that America has been sending in the Islamic world for the last decade. And he knows he has a budget deficit to tame at home.
That’s a lot of contending concerns to reconcile, so the end result looks messy and unsatisfying. U.S. policies will probably need to be adjusted as events unfold. But for now, Mr. Obama seems to be doing a good job of finding the middle ground in a situation he wishes had never arisen. The middle ground is the place that is usually most defensible, both in diplomacy and in domestic politics. It’s also the place where reelection campaigns are won. So don’t expect the White House to change its position just because people are mad on both sides of the aisle in Congress. That may be a sign the President is managing tensions effectively.
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