Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is Obama indecisive?

Bob Kuttner has a surprisingly conventional-minded evaluation of Obama's current position in Thoughtful, Prudent and Faltering: The Paradox of Obama The American Prospect 08/11/2014. He defines "the Obama paradox" this way, "He is one of the best-informed and most thoughtful foreign policy presidents we have had in a long time, but his very appreciation of complexity often comes across as indecision."

It's hard to see how this is different than the stock Republican criticism of all Democratic Presidents and Presidential contenders for the last several decades: they're indecisive, they're weak, they "flip-flop" on issues, etc., etc.

Kuttner focuses on Obama's interview with that Very Serious Person, Little Tommy Friedman: Obama on the World New York Times 08/08/2014. To me, the most significant part of that interview was what Little Tommy or the editors stuck into the final paragraph:

“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day,” said Obama. “And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. ... Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. ... And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it's the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, 'Thank you, America.' At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. ... So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’ ”
The interview was on Friday, so framing the new Iraq military adventure was presumably much on his mind. And he's indicating there that the nation-building after his limited direct military intervention there was seriously inadequate. It's hard to see that as anything but a justification for a prolonged, new direct intervention in Iraq. Earlier in the interview, Friedman quotes him indirectly on this point: "Intervening in Libya to prevent a massacre was the right thing to do, Obama argued, but doing it without sufficient follow-up on the ground to manage Libya's transition to more democratic politics is probably his biggest foreign policy regret." (my emphasis)

Kuttner observes of Obama's comment that they delayed direct US military intervention against IS because he didn't want to take the pressure off Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki to act directly. (For now, I'm going to use IS for the current bogey-man Islamic militia ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/Islamic Caliphate.) Kuttner notes:

In effect, Obama is saying, we will let ISIL do the dirty work that America is unwilling to do in forcing out Maliki, while keeping enough military pressure on ISIL to prevent them from overrunning Iraq altogether. That tactic might work, but it is risky as hell, and it hardly adds up a policy of "no victors/no vanquished."
Two things concern me about his criticism of Obama's alleged dilly-dallying besides the fact that it echoes uncomfortably with the stock Republican criticism of all Democratic Presidents.

One is that it comes from a more-or-less hawkish perspective that presumes that the Obama Administration had the ability to treat Maliki's government as an obedient client state. The current tense situation in Baghdad is an illustration of that. Juan Cole in The Long Knives Come out in Baghdad Informed Comment 08/12/2014 calls it:

... a revolutionary situation, with four centers of sovereignty. These are
  1. Nouri al-Maliki, who insists he is still prime minister
  2. Haydar al-Abadi, the incoming PM according to some parties
  3. The Kurdistan Republic of Massoud Barzani
  4. The so-called "Islamic State" of "Caliph" Ibrahim.
That situation is highly complicated. Translating it for public consumption into good-vs-evil slogans and the Cheney-Bush Administration did makes a rallying cry. But it doesn't make effective policy. Obama's seeming decisiveness in intervening in this complex with direct military force is more likely the product of excessive faith in the magic of American bombs than of a wishy-washy attitude. He certainly seems to have embraced expansive war aims while so far committing forces inadequate to achieve the stated goals. I'm more inclined to think he gave in to the impulse to Do Something rather than the "appreciation of complexity" that Kuttner cites.

The other problem I have with seeing Obama as wishy-washy is that he's been decisive in opposing progressives in his own party on issue after issue. Including this sudden entry into yet another Iraq War. From the point of view of Democratic progressives, Obama's insistence on conservative-leaning bipartisanship is frustratingly contradictory. But it's not indecisive.

His position on prosecuting torture perpetrators is an example. It's indecisive-sounding in that he deeds don't match up to his words. But he has been decisive and consistent that he wasn't going to prosecute the torturers. Whistleblowers, absolutely, he'll prosecute them more aggressively than any President ever has so far. But there's nothing indecisive about his giving a pass in violation of international and American law to torture perpetrators. (See Tom Tomorrow's 08/11/2014 cartoon and Gene Lyons, Fair Or Not, Obama Must Avoid Perception Of Weakness National Memo 08/06/2014).

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