George Will proposes a “middle course” between Bush and Obama on foreign policy:
Obama has given Americans a foreign policy congruent with their post-recoil preferences: America as spectator. Now, however, their sense of national diminishment, and of an increasingly ominous world, may be making them receptive to a middle course between a foreign policy of flaccidity (Obama) and grandiosity (his predecessor).
As Will’s own column acknowledges, however, Obama hasn’t given Americans a foreign policy in which the U.S. acts only as a spectator. The main example that Will cites from Obama’s presidency is the Libyan war, which he correctly describes as “a war of choice, waged for regime change.” It may not have been as “grandiose” as some other military interventions, but it involved the U.S. directly in a foreign war that continues to have adverse consequences for Libya and the surrounding region. Will is absolutely right to fault Obama and Clinton for the decision to intervene in Libya, but the Libyan war is a perfect example of how wrong Will is in the rest of his argument.
The Libyan war wasn’t the product of a “foreign policy of flaccidity,” but stemmed from the misguided impulse to “lead” in response to one of the uprisings during the so-called “Arab Spring.” It was a case of overreacting to a low-level civil war, inserting the U.S. and some of its allies into a purely internal conflict, and justifying all of it in with the usual overblown rhetoric always associated with “humanitarian” intervention. Deluding themselves into thinking that the U.S. was somehow obliged to side with anti-regime forces, the administration joined with a handful of European allies and Arab clients to topple a foreign government through military action. If that’s being a “spectator,” I don’t want to see what Will thinks would be sufficiently activist.
Will invokes Henry Nau’s “conservative internationalism” as his preferred model, but it’s not at all clear that this avoids any of the weaknesses of the last administration’s foreign policy. Like Bush, Nau emphasizes the need to “spread freedom,” and he disagrees only about which countries should be given priority, and like all hawks he thinks that U.S. diplomatic efforts need to be amplified by more threats and uses of force. Nau wrote:
The United States should instead be willing to use force before and during negotiations, when it is a choice, not just after negotiations fail, when it is a necessity.
This tells us that “conservative internationalism” would lead the U.S. to wage new wars of choice, which is hardly an improvement over the equally unnecessary wars waged by Bush and Obama. In practice, the “middle course” foreign policy Will has in mind is one that might be somewhat less aggressive than Bush’s, and even more hawkish than Obama’s. Will’s “middle course” is not really a middle course at all, but a reversion to a much more aggressive foreign policy that brought such discredit and damage to the country and the GOP’s reputation for foreign policy competence.