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The Pragmatic President

“Speaker John Boehner complained that Obama ordered the U.S. military into combat in Libya without clearly defining the mission to the American people and Congress,” joked Jay Leno. “See, apparently you’re only allowed to do that when invading Iraq.”

Well, inconsistency does seem to be the hallmark of governance, especially in complicated times. A waffler to some is a pragmatist to others, and President Obama displayed his pragmatism most profoundly in his overdue, careful and ultimately persuasive argument defending the American airstrikes over Libya and our otherwise (at this writing) limited involvement in the uprising roiling the North African nation.

Anyone surprised at this president’s pragmatism wasn’t listening closely during the long primary season in 2008. While candidate Obama brilliantly stoked the deep yearning for change and reform in those who supported him, his cautious, consensus-building approach to vexing issues was often overlooked or viewed as a temporary antidote to the swashbuckling posture of the man he wished to replace. But it was always there.

While he can be bold — and passing health care reform was bold, as evidenced by the reaction against it — as president, Obama actually treads cautiously, especially in foreign affairs, most especially in the Middle East and the Arab world. And while the desire for a firm Obama Doctrine and swift, decisive action may be human and understandable, we don’t see how hard-and-fast rules can apply to a region convulsing with populist passion and defined by uncertainty. Rules alone cannot guide diplomacy; values provide a better navigator.

Human rights are clearly a value to this administration. The stated goal of the airstrikes over Libya conducted by the United States and its allies was to avoid a near-certain massacre by Muammar Gadhafi’s troops — a worthy and compelling reason for this type of military action. This goal does not have to be applied evenly, everywhere, to be worthwhile in this case. Yes, it is excruciating to decide that rebels in Libya are worth supporting when the opposition in Bahrain or Syria is not, but if we’ve learned anything with these uprisings, it’s that the Arab world was and continues to be more multi-facted and complicated than our simplistic notions made it out to be.

The second value clearly enunciated by Obama is for joint effort. He wisely sought the backing of the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League before launching this exercise. For America to be seen acting alone in the Arab world would be a strategic blunder. By orchestrating this sort of coalition, Obama is not deputizing the U.N. or some other “outside” body to run our foreign policy, as some conservative commentators insinuate. He’s building an international argument against Gadhafi’s brutal treatment of his own people, an argument that transcends religion, race or ethnicity.

In this sense, Obama is acting more like President Bush the father than President Bush the son. We should be grateful.

But there is also cause for worry. The valid criticism of President George H.W. Bush’s more collaborative and limited incursion into Iraq in 1991 is that it may have ended up inviting more problems than it resolved. When allied troops did not march on to Baghdad, when they did not eliminate Saddam Hussein, they may have helped set the stage for Iraq’s later threatening behavior.

Similarly, without removing Gadhafi, this military action may come to naught. The barrage of questions still left unanswered by Obama’s stirring speech March 28 largely focus on what will happen next.

That’s the price for a pragmatic, nuanced approach to the crazy quilt of demands on American global leadership. Doing nothing would have been immoral and unconscionable. Doing more would risk international and domestic opprobrium — besides, this nation cannot afford two wars, never mind three. Choosing the middle route between two extreme paths is not as satisfying as the “just right” conclusion to the Goldilocks story, but in this dangerous, unpredictable world, the wishful thinking of fairy tales has to be tempered by the imperative for pragmatism. Fortunately, this president understands that.

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