For all their operational brilliance, American military planners develop some truly awful codenames; Operation Odyssey Dawn is only the latest in a string of nomenclatural disasters. In reality, of course, the names are assigned semi-randomly with the help of a computer, but that’s besides the point. The haphazard naming of the war in Libya is an embarrassing, if appropriate, reflection of President Obama’s decision (perhaps indecision would be a better word) to go to war in the first place. As soon as he gave into international pressure and endorsed the idea of a no-fly zone, he should have taken command—and ownership. Instead, true to form, he dithered. He failed to explain this operation to the American people. He failed to establish a clear chain of command with our NATO allies. He even failed to say exactly what it is the United States wants to accomplish in Libya. If you don’t have an informed and supportive public, a workable command structure and a definable objective, you don’t go to war. Period. For someone who promised an end to cowboy diplomacy, the President seemed to have no problem shooting first and asking questions later. Barack Obama’s foreign policy was not supposed to be look like this…was it? Surely he had a plan that didn’t involve coalitions of the willing and wars of choice?
As it turns out, no, he didn’t. Not because President Obama is a closeted neo-con in sheep’s clothing (he most certainly is not), but because he lacks a coherent strategic vision for American foreign policy. He acknowledges American power, but says nothing about what he plans to accomplish with it. He makes vague references to international cooperation, but he seems not to give any thought to the notion that alliances like NATO exist to confront international problems, not provide yet another social outlet for heads of state. Multilateralism is not an end; it is one means to an end. As the leader of what they used to call the free world, it is Barack Obama’s job to determine what that end is, how to get there and to build the team that can get it done. Nicolas Sarkozy may have the luxury of firing from the hip whenever it suits him, but the President of the United States has to be able to impose some discipline and focus to our alliances—otherwise they become meaningless.
Of course, this problem is not of Barack Obama’s making—it has confronted every President since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and each one of them has ultimately failed to resolve it. Liberal interventionism (of the kind Obama is revisiting in Libya) failed, in the end, to become an organizing principle for NATO under Bill Clinton, and the Europeans similarly lacked the stomach for George W. Bush’s global war on terror. The root of the problem is that the United States is at the center of an alliance structure of and for the Cold War. NATO is an anti-Russian military pact. Outside of this context, the alliance will always be plagued by its members’ divergence of interests. NATO expansion into Eastern Europe and the Baltic states—areas that Russia considers fundamental to its national security interests—has only compounded the situation by stoking Russian fears of Western encroachment. At the same time, Moscow is using its vast natural resource wealth as leverage against much of Europe and forging an increasingly strong partnership with Germany, leaving NATO divided and unable to quell the profound security concerns of members like Poland, who remember all too well what can happen when the Russians and Germans start cozying up with one another. The Russian resurgence is one example of NATO’s growing impotence, but there are others—ineffectiveness in Afghanistan, a growing divide between Turkey and the West, disagreement over the proper size of European defense budgets. The United States cannot abandon NATO, for obvious reasons. But Barack Obama does not have to let a zombie alliance drag us off to questionable wars that serve mainly to gird Europe’s vanity. He must instead seek to build new institutions that actually permit us to work with other nations to advance collective interests. That is, after all, one of the reasons we elected him.