Ross Douthat continues the discussion on Obama’s foreign policy:

But at the moment that approach simply isn’t working….And maybe there’s a lesson here about the potential difficulty with the cautious, skeptical, not-too-ideological, balancing-act theory of foreign affairs that I’ve been drawn to since the Iraq War, because it does seem like one consistent problem — and yes, as you no doubt expected, I’m advancing a unified theory here after all — for this administration has been a kind of policy halfheartedness, a semi-decisiveness in which the White House backs into a strategy (often one that other voices within the administration seem to favor more than Obama does) and the president either pursues it with obvious reluctance or casts around for a way to slip out of its requirements.

This lines up with some of what I have said in the past, and I’m inclined to endorse the “semi-decisiveness” interpretation up to a point. However, the claim that Obama’s approach “simply isn’t working” raises the question: working to do what?

If one judges the Libyan war solely by whether or not Gaddafi was removed from power, it is deceptively easy to say that the intervention “worked.” In fact, that is usually the defense of the Libyan war that its supporters are most eager to offer: there was regime change, therefore the intervention was successful. Pay no attention to the ensuing disorder, militia rule, and regional destabilization that followed. Of course, that dodges the issue of whether forcing regime change was a wise or necessary thing for the U.S. and its allies to do. It is the sort of defense that supporters of every short-term victory use, because it deliberately avoids engaging with the larger question of whether the war was worth fighting. So when we say that a foreign policy approach “isn’t working,” we’re implicitly saying something about what we think ought to be done instead. Whether one thinks that a particular policy is “working” depends greatly on what one thinks the U.S. role in any given crisis should be.

If the administration is half-hearted in execution of many of its policies, that seems to be because Obama and his top officials are torn between the impulse to “do something” in response to foreign crises and the awareness that there is not very much useful that the U.S. can do. That leads them to do just enough to be seen as taking action, but not so much that it will constitute a major commitment. That inevitably creates a gap between rhetoric and policy that is easy to ridicule, and traps the administration into doing things that even some of its top members know it shouldn’t be trying in the first place.