Posted by: Martin Russell | August 23, 2011

Obama Calculates The Libya Foreign Policy Equation

In foreign policy, hindsight is the decision process’ greatest threat. It can expose any liabilities in the process from decision to impact to consequence. Whilst these very rarely fit such a clear lineage, hindsight is the evaluative tool of media, historians, and public opinion. Consequently, the auxiliary role that the United States and the Obama administration played in the current situation in Libya represented both a challenge and opportunity for the President yesterday.

Initially, the sweeping actions and rhetoric of the rebel forces got even some of the world’s leaders drunk with glee, no doubt enhanced by the claims that a legitimate [rather reductionist military engagement] by NATO facilitated a swift collapse of the Gaddafi regime. It was the next logical step after wide recognition of the TNC as the legitimate force in Libya. Yesterday was supposed to be the physical representation of such a fact. Cameron spoke of the need to avoid a “complacency” and the need to move towards a more “inclusive” Libya. Sarkozy was extending invites to Paris. The ICC proclaiming the capture of Gaddafi’s sons. The politics of justice, you could say, were in full swing.

Then, Obama, made his statement. Another particularly strong foreign policy showing in the aftermath of the demise of Bin Laden – a limited American engagement, co-ordination and effective execution. The fact that the U.S. was a secondary role is another geopolitical discussion for another day. In the midst of domestic troubles for Obama, caused by the debt crisis and credit ratings debate, Libya has currency for the administration. More importantly, Libya has historical currency for the domestic audience in the U.S. after Gaddafi’s numerous marks on the nation. Obama, however, did not overplay the role of the U.S.

Good choice.

24 hours later and an appearance by a supposedly captured son of Gaddafi in Tripoli has exposed one of the plagues of effective foreign policy, credibility. No.10 is relatively quiet this morning (Clegg is leading the show), Sarkozy is probably regretting some of the invites and the ICC have been made to look naive at best and inept at worst. The ICC is now in damage limitation mode acknowledging that no official recognition of the captures came. The TNC and rebel forces will also have to re-establish a credibility; this usually comes through tangible evidence. That might be bad news for Gaddafi.

As for Obama, he calculated the solution just right. Perhaps, just perhaps, the administration realised there was a gap in the line of information somewhere. Furthermore, a limited U.S. engagement can be retained within his rhetoric by one important strategic aim, limited U.S. culpability.

Obama has done well, very well indeed. Put it in this metaphorically way – Obama has managed to stay on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard, Cameron has had to return twice from holiday in nearly as many weeks although he did return to his well earned break today.

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