Thursday, March 17, 2011

Foreign Policy Theatrics

I was perplexed Tuesday about Obama’s reluctance to cast himself in the role of leader of the free world, if only for theatrical purposes. My point was that when people extol the foreign policy leadership of, say, Ronald Reagan, they’re usually thinking less of what he did than what he said, even when it was said to little, if any, practical effect. They’ve forgotten all about Reagan’s humiliating withdrawal of Marines from Lebanon in the face of Hezbollah terror or his readiness to trade arms for hostages in Iran. But they can still hear him saying: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Why, I asked, doesn’t Obama stage a few theatrical productions of his own in this vein when it could help him politically without comprising his substantive foreign policies?

It’s not that the Obama foreign policy team is above theatrics. Consider its latest maneuver before the UN Security Council:
“The prospect of a deadly siege of the rebel stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, has produced a striking shift in tone from the Obama administration, which is now pushing for the United Nations to authorize aerial bombing of Libyan tanks and heavy artillery to try to halt the advance of forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“The administration, which remains deeply reluctant to be drawn into an armed conflict in yet another Muslim country, is nevertheless backing a resolution in the Security Council that would give countries a broad range of options for aiding the Libyan rebels, including military steps that go well beyond a no-flight zone.”
Gestures can’t get much emptier or more cynical than this. We all know that Russia and China would veto any Security Council resolution to this effect. But forcing them to exercise their veto will cast them, and not Obama, as the guys with the blood of Libyan insurgents on their hands. That shows that this administration knows how to manipulate appearances for political effect. This is its way of getting people, both here and abroad, who want a more muscular response to Middle Eastern instability off its back.

Yet notice something else: Obama isn’t the guy announcing the change of policy. If he thinks that a bellicose gesture is worthwhile, why isn’t he the guy doing the gesturing?

I can think of only one answer: Obama really believes, and wants to be remembered for believing, that it's time we dispensed with the pretense of being a superpower, even if he has to a political price for it here and now.  Say what you will about its wisdom, but that's not a cynical aspiration.

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