In his column in the Washington Post today, Jackson Diehl lurches uncontrollably into one of the great truths of American foreign policy:
Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy in this election year might be best summed up by William F. Buckley’s famous promise: to “stand athwart history, yelling stop.” Wherever war rages, crisis looms, or a truculent strongman glowers, the message from the White House has been the same: “Give me space.”
To the extent that there is an American foreign policy, that policy is extremely conservative. That has been true, with few lapses, over a very long period of time. That reflexive conservatism, along with its character as an emergent phenomenon of the frequently conflicting interests of the American people, has been what has promoted American foreign policy’s remarkable consistency over time and regardless of the party holding the White House or the Congress.
That’s completely rational: when events break as much in your favor as they have for the last couple of centuries it’s natural to want them to keep on doing so. Hence, conservatism.
Although defense is easier than attack, the attacker dictates the terms of the engagement. Yielding the initiative, whether you call it “patience”, “leading from behind” or “waiting until after the election”, assumes that your luck will continue to hold out and that adversaries or even notional allies are incompetent or will not work against your interests.
The greatest strength of the Libya campaign, that it required no U. S. boots on the ground, was also its greatest weakness: no boots on the ground limits what little control you may have over how events unfold. As we found in Iraq boots on the ground do not necessarily mean you can dictate the outcome. But little is not none and without them there is even less control over unfolding events.
Sometimes you gets the bear, sometimes the bear gets you.