Sunday, September 15, 2013

Putting foreign-policy incompetence into some perspective

One distressing feature of the political and diplomatic uproar over Syria during the past three weeks or so has been the amount of bungling, miscalculation, unpreparedness, and clumsy improvisation displayed by Obama and his administration in their handling of this crisis. (Also their bad luck, which is something that—fairly or not—leaders and other public figures often get blamed for. Napoleon once said that the most important qualification for a general was that he had to be lucky, and that quip may have had a grain of truth in it. But then again, Obama may have lucked out by having Putin save him, sort of, from what looked like the almost certain prospect of a humiliating political debacle.)

However, I confess that I'm getting a little tired of the constant yammering from pundits and politicians, especially but not exclusively on the right, about how the mishandling of the crisis demonstrates the uniquely extreme and uniquely disastrous foreign-policy incompetence of the Obama administration. Let's put this in some perspective. So far, as a few calmer voices have noted, the incompetence displayed by the Obama administration in this crisis doesn't begin to approach, in either its scale or its damaging consequences, the incompetence displayed in Reagan's Lebanese adventure, the Bush I/Clinton intervention in Somalia, Carter's handling of the Iran hostage crisis, Bush II's catastrophic mismanagement of the post-Saddam occupation & non-reconstruction of Iraq ... and one could go on.

Of course, this contextualization shouldn't let Obama and his team off the hook (especially in terms of their long-term policy, or more precisely non-policy, for dealing with the larger problems posed by the Syrian civil war). And this crisis isn't really over yet, so it may turn out a lot more badly than it now appears (which is bad enough). But some of the people hyperventilating about this particular incident should calm down a bit. When foreign-policy crises are examined carefully and in detail (even ones that seem to have turned out relatively successfully, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis), they always involve a lot of bungling, miscalculation, and improvisation. In this case, criticism is called for, but we can do without some of the hysterical over-reactions (whether genuine or feigned) and partisan propaganda.

—Jeff Weintraub