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Robin Simcox: What is it with Democrats and interventionism?

By Robin Simcox

It's harder to imagine a much more relucatant warrior than President Obama over Libya. Still, as Bill Kristol says, setting up a no-fly zone now is better late than never. There has hopefully been immediate pay-off, with Gaddafi declaring a ceasefire. Whether he plans to sticks to that is open to debate.

Setting up the no-fly zone was the right decision, even if the international community got there slowly. It would have been terrific if a genuine grassroots movement across the Middle East deposed the Mubarak's and Gaddafi's without western intervention. However, once the blood-letting began, it was imperative to take action. Outside the moral dimension, an emboldened Gaddafi returning to power is in no way beneficial to our, or the region's, wider interests.

However, all this should not disguise what a truly pitiful performance this has been from Obama. Over the last few weeks, he has resembled the invisible man. He has had to be dragged kicking and screaming into involvement on Libya. In the past couple of days, senior White House officials have been briefing The New York Times as to why the leader of the free world was so keen to sit this one out. The reasoning goes:

  • they are reluctant to involve themselves in an armed conflict in another Muslim-majority country
  • interference could provoke an anti-American backlash
  • involvement in a third war would lead to military overstetch
  • Libya is not a vital security interest

For someone whose presidential campaign ran pretty much solely on an idealistic basis, it is interesting to see how calculating and amoral Obama is in power. There is something very Kissingerian about the way Obama sees foreign relations.

This follows a general trend of Democrat Presidents being increasingly adverse to interventionism. It is now over half a century since an instinctively interventionist Democratic president - which I would classify Kennedy as - was elected. Johnson may have escalated the Vietnam war, but he still inherited it. Carter encouraged the US to look inwards, not outwards. Clinton would have not have involved the US in Kosovo were it not for Blair. All these presidents have extolled democracy promotion and human rights at various times, yet have often been reluctant to do much about it.

On a more positive note, it has been an extremely impressive diplomatic triumph for David Cameron. The Prime Minister, like Obama, is essentially a domestic politics type of guy who views foreign affairs as a nuisance rather than something to define his legacy. Unlike Obama, however, Cameron has shown a greater moral fortitude and willingness to get things done on the international stage.


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