Americans can always be counted upon to do the right thing, Winston Churchill is said to have declared, after exhausting all of the alternatives. In that spirit, President Obama intervened in Libya after taking his time figuring out the right thing to do.
The result, at least in the short term, is a sort of Goldilocks policy: Not too hot and not too cold.
Doing the right thing in Libya has meant going to war against Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. That's a tragedy, but the alternatives were looking even more tragic. Rebels appeared set to oust the Libyan strongman in early March, the latest upset for the region's entrenched despots. But Gadhafi struck back, promising, "We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity."
Gadhafi is not the only tyrant to wage a war against his own people (Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe immediately come to mind) and we do have to pick our battles carefully. But, in a region erupting with mostly secular, pro-democracy uprisings against autocrats, Libya's master of audacity was becoming too outrageous for the United States to overlook.
What to do? A stereotype-defying gender gap opened up among Obama's closest advisers. The women appeared more hawkish than the guys.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Samantha Power, a top National Security Council human rights specialist, reportedly urged a no-fly zone to stop the slaughter. On the other side, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, among others, warned of an anti-Western backlash and other negative repercussions to a lengthy military mission.
Yet, as the attacks began, Clinton was almost painfully cautious in describing the operation as one that we're helping to lead without really leading. "We did not lead this," she recently said in Paris, emphasizing that "this is a broad international effort." We're in a partnership with France and Britain under urgings from the Arab League and a U.N. Security Council resolution for a no-fly zone. In other words, we're sort of running this operation but we're not in charge.
And, asked whether the mission was aimed at pushing Gadhafi from power, she said it was only to "protect civilians and provide access for humanitarian assistance." However, Clinton did suggest that Gadhafi might be driven out without a push by foreign military power. Let's hope.
Goldilocks would be pleased. It is a policy that fits the president's straight-down-the-middle penchant for compromise: It has plenty to displease everyone. It incorporates the worries expressed by all sides, but also raises some of the same questions liberals raised about Iraq: What are the clear objectives? What's the endgame? What's it going to cost?
And, most urgently, if neither Gadhafi nor his opposition beats the other and hunkers down for the long haul, what do we do next? As we saw with Saddam Hussein, it is easier for the United States to oust a leader than to predict who or what comes afterward.
Obama has yet to come up with his own version of a pro-democracy foreign policy doctrine to replace that of the Bush administration. That's understandable, given the rapidly changing nature of the Middle East. No one anticipated the anti-dictator uprisings that suddenly have swept across the region.
Yet the mostly young, secular and pro-democracy participants in the uprisings, as well as their national leaders, need to hear clear signals from the United States as to whether they can count on our support.
For the long term, Goldilocks isn't good enough.