Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Financial Times hearts dithering

The Financial Times Comment crew is bidding fair to turn "ditherer" into a term of honor. Clive Crook, who slapped the term on Obama during his deliberations over Afghan policy, yesterday cataloged the virtues of dither-beration in the emergence of the strategy in Libya. Today, Gideon Rachman sings a similar tune.

Crook notes that in Obama, Europe has the antidote to Bush it thought it wanted:
Not long ago, Europe complained that the US was bullying, reckless and high-handed. Not long ago, Europe was ecstatic at Mr Obama’s election because this was not his style. You would think, having longed for a president who was cautious, deliberate and respectful of other countries’ opinions – and having voiced contempt for George W. Bush because he was none of those things – Europeans would hesitate to say: “The time for talking is over. Just start shooting.” 

Both kinds of critic – US hawks and Europe’s militant multilateralists – are right to say dithering held up the allied attacks and made the mission harder. The problem for multilateralists is that dithering is built into the system they advocate. If you cannot tolerate dithering, better not demand UN authority for your military interventions.

Europeans say better US leadership could have brought the allies to the point of action faster. How? America had good reason to lag behind the UK and France. It was right to be nervous about further inflaming sentiment against it in the Islamic world. If the operation was seen as US led, that might help the Libyan regime to stir resistance at home and abroad. And US military resources are already stretched. The Pentagon was leery of this mission and expressed its reservations in public. A wise president does not overrule such advice lightly.

Moreover, even if the US had pushed harder, a coalition with Britain and France would still have been too small by multilateralist lights. Assembling broad consensus, regional participation and cast-iron compliance with international law was bound to take time. To meet these conditions so quickly, and to win authority not just for a pointless no-fly zone but for “all necessary measures”, was a notable achievement. Against the odds, armed multilateralism has passed its first test: the allies have launched an intervention with a chance of success.
Rachman contrasts "hotheads" and ditherers" and comes down firmly on the side of the ditherers:
Ditherers prefer questions to declarations. They ask things like “how will this end?” and “what precedent does it set?” Their heroes tend to be the Cassandras who warned against military involvements that turned out badly – the people who stood aside from the cheering crowds in 1914, or who warned against ever deeper involvement in Vietnam.

Mr Obama is a natural ditherer. He took many months to review policy on Afghanistan and then announced a policy that was a compromise – more troops now, but a faster withdrawal later. His television address to the American people on the action in Libya was careful and low-key. The president spent as much time emphasising what the US will not do (commit ground troops), as the goals of the mission.

It is not always a bad thing to hesitate. There is, in fact, a long and honourable tradition of dithering in US foreign policy. The Americans waited until 1917 before entering the first world war and until Pearl Harbor before entering the second.

Mr Obama also had good reason to dither over this particular conflict. He campaigned as the man who would get the US out of Iraq, not into Libya. American troops are heavily committed in Afghanistan and are still not fully out of Iraq. The president knows that France and Britain are capable of starting a fight with Muammer Gaddafi, but may not be capable of finishing it. He knows that support from the Arab League is fickle. And he could see that, even as some Europeans pressed for action in Libya, they were pushing to cut their contributions to Afghanistan.
While both Crook and Rachman are respectful of regarding tradeoffs Obama accepted and the process he steered,, they're both also decidedly alert to the downside of collective action and intervention, and agnostic about likely results. They're not alone. Andrew Sullivan noted a few days ago that almost no one in the commentariat was enthusiastically in support of Obama's course of action in Libya. The converse is that few outside of the most rigid neocons and the knee-jerk partisans is in full-scale denunciation mode, either (Daniel Larison, who has a very consistent approach to U.S. intervention abroad, has been relentless and reasoned as ever in his criticism). No one has any idea how events will play out in Libya, or in the Middle East at large.  Prognosticating the Iraq war may have inculcated a degree of humility in many.

But then, maybe I just hew toward the quiet center of the screamosphere.

More on the Libyan Conundrum
O Captain! My Captain! Make us all get in the boat together (3/23/11)

Another war, another presidential 'terms sheet' (3/21/11)
Obama's military triangulation (3/20/11)
A spectacle of war and intervention (3/18/11)
No risk-free course in Libya  (3/18/11)

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