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Posted at 11:12 AM ET, 02/23/2011

An administration adrift

By Jennifer Rubin

Stephen Hayes has a write-up of a meeting between himself, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, the Brookings Institution's Robert Kagan, the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. The account does not fill one with confidence.

Most disturbing is the nonchalant attitude toward Libya:

...think, it's all happened so fast," Gates said Tuesday. "And you know, I mean, the strafing of people and everything is, what, 48 hours old?" . . .

Gates says what happens to Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and his country is unknowable at this point. "Whether he's able to reestablish control through extraordinarily bloody repression, whether the army boots him out - although the army isn't as unified in Libya as it is in some of these other countries that we're dealing with - whether he goes and it kind of goes back to before '63 in terms of kind of the three parts of the country - the south drawn toward Sub-Saharan Africa, Cyrenaica toward Egypt, and the other part toward the West - have some sort of a consensus among tribal elders or something like that - I think it's really an open question at this point."

Gates says there are signs the Libyan military is "fragmenting," with unconfirmed reports that some commanders have refused orders to fire on protestors and that others have joined the demonstrations. Although the United States has limited capabilities in the region which would make it difficult to set up a no-fly zone quickly, others might be in a better position to help. "The French - I don't know what the British have in the area - but the French and the Italians potentially, I suppose, could have some assets they could put in there quicker."

In response to a question about whether the administration should be showing a greater sense of urgency in stopping the bloodshed, Gates said he's involved in Libya-related meetings "two or three times a day" and reiterated that "it's a very fast moving situation."

It's unknowable. I don't know. We're having lots of meetings. This is best we can do?

In fairness to Gates, he's only the secretary of defense, but what he reveals is that no one in the White House or in the State Department is taking charge of the situation to develop a strategy. What is absent is any sense of urgency about the unfolding tragedy, let alone any clear policy objectives. Perhaps they've been too busy screeching at Israel about its settlements.

Equally revealing is Gates's obvious discomfort with the July 2011 troop deadline in Afghanistan ("the piece of the strategy that frankly I had the hardest time with during the debate"). He seems to have talked himself into going along with an approach that plainly did not stem from military necessity. ("Although military and civilian officials tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the July 2011 deadline has made it harder to get Afghans to cooperate with the U.S. and our allies, Gates believes there may be a payoff when the deadline passes.")

Lastly, Gates seems to have been sending a signal to the congressional budget hawks to temper their enthusiasm for whacking the Pentagon's budget:

[H]e is concerned that the budget hawks, in a triumph of math over strategy, are too eager to cut the Pentagon budget in their efforts to pare down the deficit. "Defense is not like other discretionary spending. This is something we've got to do and that we have a responsibility to do. And so the two shouldn't be equated. They have not been equated in the past. I mean, that's why they call it non-defense discretionary spending and so on."

He adds: "I got it that we've got a $1.6 trillion deficit. But defense is not a significant part of that problem. If you took a 10 percent cut in defense, which would be catastrophic in terms of capabilities, that would be $50 billion on a $1.6 trillion deficit."

And national security, he says, "is the on function that unambiguously belongs to the federal government."

Unfortunately, the multiple rounds of Pentagon cuts that Gates coughed up and vouched for set the tone of the debate, no doubt exactly as the president hoped.

The portrait of Gates is a man struggling to push an administration to act responsibly. To the chagrin of those who advocate a robust American presence in the world, he seems to have been only partially successful. In the end, there is no substitute for a thoughtful, forceful commander in chief who understands the need to project American power and values. And that we don't have.

By Jennifer Rubin  | February 23, 2011; 11:12 AM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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Comments

What does Jennifer want Obama to do? Invade and nation build? How's that working in Iraq and Afghanistan? Subatantially all the Arab Muslim world has been misruled for the last several centuries by colonizers and kleptocrats. There is scant experience with rule of law or private property. And the Religion of Peace, with its emphasis on Allah's will, rather than the free will concept ow western religion, does not help either. Buy the oil and leave the place alone.

Posted by: Inagua1 | February 23, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

The Middle East is on the verge of a period of instability and economic upheaval which could last for years.
Most of the Arab countries which are now in turmoil have only been stable due to the presence of a strong autocratic ruler who used his military and security forces to keep the radical Islamists at bay, and the various tribes, ethnic groups, and religious sects from each other's throats.
This stability for what is worth is now about gone, and the fighting for supremacy is now about to take place.
There is a far greater chance that the Middle East is going to go up in flames rather than settle it's differences and problems peacefully.
There is little or nothing that Obama can now do to save the situation. He has already reduced America's prestige and power to almost nothing the Middle East, he has treacherously abandoned American allies, and has shown Iran and other rogue regimes in the region that they have nothing to fear from either him or America.
With just a touch more of his famous incompetence, Obama won't just eclipse Jimmy Carter's foreign policy failure with Iran and the Ayatollah, he will outdo Carter so badly that Carter's Iranian fiasco will look like a huge success in retrospect.

Posted by: Beniyyar | February 23, 2011 11:57 AM | Report abuse

somebody used to talk about unknown unknowns.

Posted by: engdre | February 23, 2011 11:59 AM | Report abuse

We have a clueless, ineffectual administration. Our enemies taunt us and only our friends fear us. In regard to Libya, it's probably better for Obama to shut up than to say something that makes matters worse.

Gadhafi is already blaming America for the unrest, and the last thing we need is a hostage crisis. We don't have a carrier group in the Mediterranean, so there's not much we can do militarily any time soon. Diplomatically we have Hillary, whose specialty is undermining allies.

Posted by: eoniii | February 23, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse

I'm willing to give Obama a slight break here if his silence is specifically to protect those 600 Americans from becoming hostages, or worse. However, he could at least say *something* that denounces Libya. Perhaps something that mentions US disapproval of the govt violence, but doesn't mention Qaddafi specifically.

Regardless, we're just looking more and more feckless to the world. Worse, we denounce and oppose friends while staying mum in the face of the horrific behavior of our enemies. Perhaps though that's part of the plan of the Obama admin - weaken America and the West so that we're closer to becoming one big happy "global community" where everyone is the same.

Posted by: RitchieEmmons | February 23, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

"We have a clueless, ineffectual administration..."

Gee, where do I sign up? I'd fit in perfectly! But I only do Folger's -- richest kind, doncha know.

Posted by: aardunza | February 23, 2011 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Obama gets tough! We're "intensifying our consultations" and "standing up for freedom". Strong letter to follow!

Posted by: eoniii | February 23, 2011 5:13 PM | Report abuse

SecDef Gates defined the three probable outcomes in Libya very well, which means we know where we are at the moment. It is rather complicated by China having at least 25,000, Turkey has 25,000, more than ten thousand Tunisian workers - as many as 350,000 foreign workers needing to get out in what became a civil war almost overnight. The EU needs to take the lead - Italy is so dependent on Libya for oil and gas that maybe Qaddafi's bff Berlusconi can get on a speakerphone with Turkey's Erdogan and calm Qaddafi down.

Obama's foreign policy priorities today are 1) Bahrain, 2) Suez Canal, and 3) I guess Wisconsin.

The United States has not been the "leader of the free world" since Bush43 invaded Iraq, although good thing he did because that is why we are not facing Qaddafi with nukes today.

eonii: the USS Kearsarge can drop 4,000 Marines overnight into Libya - they are that close. Not sure what they would do that would be helpful except to help Egypt, if invited.

Patience is a virtue. No one is noticing that Ivory Coast is erupting into similar violence.

Posted by: K2K2 | February 23, 2011 6:37 PM | Report abuse

K2K2, Kearsarge is with the 5th Fleet based in Bahrain. Given the situation there, I doubt she will be sailing to the Med any time soon.

I agree with you patience is a virtue. It's also the only option we now have in Libya.

Posted by: Stu707 | February 23, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

K2K2, I'm actually less worried about Libya than Egypt, Yemen and Jordan because the Muslim Brotherhood doesn't seem to be a factor. I think getting the Americans and other foreigners safely out has to be a top concern. Beyond that we should use what little (negligible?) influence we have for a peaceful resolution. Democracy isn't one of the possible outcomes. Sending Hillary to Geneva to address the UN Human Rights Commission -- on which Libya and other tyrannical regimes sit -- is farcical.

Excellent point about the Iraq War being the reason the madman Gadhafi doesn't have nukes. I'm sure the folks in eastern Libya are grateful.

Posted by: eoniii | February 23, 2011 7:06 PM | Report abuse

Stu707: The Kearsarge is in the 5th Fleet arena, but sitting in the Great Bitter Lake, immediately south of the Suez Canal. If Egypt wants her help on the border with Libya (where there is now a refugee crisis), I assume it is logistically simple enough.

eonii: The Economist has a very good summary in the new print edition, with a map showing the oil pipelines and ports. Rather stunning to read that Libya, with a population of 6.5 million, also has 1.5 million foreign workers, with 350,000 being higher-skilled.
The others, from Tunisia, Egypt, India, and African countries are also fleeing, by foot and auto.

Besides, now that the cocoa beans are being held hostage in Ivory Coast, I personally thing the Marines should be sent THERE! No chocolate? Oh my. Liberate the cocoa beans!

not that anyone is coming back to this thread :)

Posted by: K2K2 | February 24, 2011 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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