Successful foreign policy requires a bit of idealism (particularly in a democracy) and a lot of Realpolitik. The strategy must be well understood by the leaders, but a bit of ambiguity is needed to prevent the adversaries from attacking the weak points.
First, the idealism:
George Bush and Condi Rice pushed the idea that the spread of democracy in the Muslim world would serve as an antidote to fundamentalism. Barack Obama adopted the theme in his Cairo speech of 2009. For the United States, this theme goes back at least to Woodrow Wilson's "war to make the world safe for democracy." In Iraq and Afghanistan we did not just put a friendly face in power - as the British did throughout the region in the '50s - we held messy elections. In the long run that may be best.
We'd also like to stop people from killing their own people. In Egypt it was a few hundred; in Libya it is in the thousands. But, in recent decades the West has shown little interest in the neighborhood when the numbers were in the hundreds of thousands or millions in Darfur/Sudan, Rwanda, and the Congo. For some reason CNN did not care.
Second, the Realpolitik:
Throughout the region there are three tiers of importance, and our actions should be measured in their impact on the top tier. The game is about Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran. If the first four are OK, we are OK; it would be a great world if we could make Iran OK. Tier Two Egypt and Iraq matter, but not so much.
The third tier, which includes most of the places currently in turmoil - Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco - doesn't really matter except for their impact on the top tier. For these there are simple rules - no weapons of mass destruction, no al Queda, no attacking your neighbors - particularly if they are in the top tier. Fortunately Gaddafy gave up his nuclear program when Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. Sadly, Afghanistan belongs in this bottom group.
As we consult with our allies, position our forces, and pass UN resolutions we need to keep our priorities in mind. We still have overwhelmingly the world's greatest military force, an economy almost three times the size of the second place Chinese and the dollar as the global reserve currency, but in the new reality we cannot be the world's only police force - particularly where we are not invited. Libya matters to Europe because of oil and a potential flood of refugees; if they don't take a stronger position than they did in the Balkan Wars of the 90's, maybe the European Union needs to rethink their military policies. If the Arab League doesn't want our help, well ...
As we approach the 2012 elections there is a tendency to view the performance of the Obama administration in political terms. "Mubarak is not a tyrant" (Biden); "his government is stable"(Clinton); "he must go now"(Carney); "we should impose a no fly zone in Libya" (Clinton); "we need to avoid loose talk about a no fly zone" (Gates). It is clear that there is no coordinated strategy or position as each leader makes their own statements while policy is made up on the fly. Thus far the result in the lesser countries is acceptable, but American leadership in the region is being badly eroded.
Joe Biden is always good for a humorous video, here during a plant visit to tout the administration's heavy subsidies for electric cars.
bill bowen - 3/4/11