Reading Peter Finn and Anne Kornblut's history of President Obama's failure to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, there's an eerie similarity to the manner in which he's waging war on Moammar Gadhafi. In both cases, the Obama team dedicates what it considers a calibrated amount of effort to achieve a goal that it publicly states is vital. Why the calibration? To avert arousing political headwinds that can thwart the goal; and undo other aspects of its agenda.
And to keep that effort calibrated, it presumes the durability of political consensus. With Guantanamo, that means relying on John McCain's agreement during the 2008 campaign that the detention facility should be shuttered. With Libya, it means relying on congressional Republicans' three-week drumbeat for intervention.
By the same token, the calibration itself is an attempt to maintain the consensus. Never once during the Obama administration does any official argue that closing Guantanamo is a stepping stone toward what the civil libertarian position on detentions is: battlefield military captures in Afghanistan; civilian trials or transfers/releases for everyone else. Obama's first effort to contextualize the Guantanamo closure, the May 2009 National Archives speech, rejects that position by embracing the conservative positions of military commissions and selected indefinite detentions without trial.
In Libya, Obama takes the baffling step of promising that his military objectives will not meet his political objective of ousting Gadhafi. He goes further, pledging to restrict U.S. involvement in the war after an initially substantial commitment. From a strategic perspective, it's inexplicable, even when considering his desire not to fight harder than the Libyan revolutionaries. Only from a political perspective does it possess any logic, which is not to arouse domestic opposition. (Or, to bend over backward to be charitable, not to additionally tax an overburdened military, even though that's more properly an argument against intervention.)
It's not worth belaboring the point by dwelling on the fact that both efforts are... well, it's too soon to call Libya a failure. But notice that Obama administration's strategy miscalculations now leave both missions in the hands of exogenous events. In Libya, it's the hope that Gadhafi's generals will rid Obama of this meddlesome dictator. With Guantanamo, it's the hope that Dan Fried is such a savvy diplomat that he'll persuade foreign countries to roll out the red carpet for the residual Guantanamo population.
But that leads to another similarity. No one knows how either move fits into a larger administration approach to the broader issues that Guantanamo and Libya represent. Even if Guantanamo is vacant, where will future terrorism detainees captured outside Afghanistan reside? Does the Libya war obligate Obama to block other Mideastern counterrevolutions; and if not, does that reluctance encourage regional dictators to dig in? The administration's insistance that it rejects setting precedents indicates it hasn't thought this whole thing through. (You may not be interested in setting precedents, Mr. McDonough; but regional actors observing your decisions most certainly are.)
There are some obvious limits to these parallels. Obama came into office explicitly dedicated to closing Guantanamo and he was teed up to blame Bush for the thorniest complexities of Guantanamo, as Marcy Wheeler lays out. No one had any way of knowing in 2009 or 2010 that the Arab world was on the brink of an epochal and cascading series of home-grown rejections of authoritarism. The Obama team had years to develop its positions about military detention in the war against al-Qaeda and indefinite detention. It's still groping its way through the implications of dignity promotion, entrenched within the National Security Strategy, for U.S. strategy in the Middle East.
But it's no less possible to draw conclusions about Obama as a strategist. Both Guantanamo and Libya indicate a hesitation to commit to his more controversial decisions. That hesitation inspires intransigence and resistance. If Obama isn't going to make a public case for his goals and sustain it through consistent pressure and devoted resources, there's no reason to rally behind him. In both cases, he responds to opposition with unilateralism rather than persuasion or outmaneuvering his enemies. Witness the indefinite detention executive order, a way to circumvent a conservative legislative framework on detentions. And witness the Office of Legal Counsel's blithe assertion that there's no problem with conducting the Libya war without congressional authorization.
Now: Obama's proven that on the issues closer to his heart, he'll build his case with tenacity and see his efforts through. On both health care reform and New START, he fought hard, called out critics, and won. (I didn't think he had a prayer of winning on New START.) And on getting out of Iraq and shifting strategy in Afghanistan, he cultivated the military extensively, assessing correctly in both cases that it was the critical constituency. So it's not like the strategy deficiencies identified above are universal flaws.
The undercurrent running through both -- at least somewhat -- is fear. Obama accomodates himself to the politics of fear instead of confronting them. Closing Guantanamo without rejecting military commissions and indefinite detention is already an accomodation. His critics read that as an unprincipled stance and reason they can trip him up through his stance's complexity. In Libya, fear can't explain the war; a sincere desire to prevent bloodshed most certainly can, as can a sincere desire to more equitably distribute burden-sharing for foreign crises. But fear nevertheless runs through the policy. A fear of owning post-Gadhafi Libya. A fear of backing off the war with Gadhafi in power. A fear of not responding to bloodshed with an overtaxed military. Some of these fears are reasonable, but that doesn't make the war any less of a strategic hash.
During the campaign, the Obama team argued that its ambitious overhaul of foreign policy and national security required confronting and overcoming the fear-based politics that drive successive administrations into overly militarized blunders. In office, that extraordinarily difficult effort has been the first thing it's jettisoned. No wonder its failures compound and its victories come with the narrowest of margins.