Impotence is a bad basis for foreign policy, but self-delusion would be worse, as we presumably learned in Iraq but seem to have forgotten. John McCain rants about a “loss of credibility” in not responding faster to the latest crises, but the President is more realistic.
"We have to think through strategically what's going to be in our long term national interests,” he says, warning against becoming "mired in very difficult situations...being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region."
Withholding aid to Egypt won’t work, as Saudi Arabia and others fill the gap. Syria is an even worse quagmire of reckless factions to topple a reckless regime.
What makes all this even worse is that, as bad as these strategic and diplomatic situations are, the moral choices are even worse. It is not in our national nature to stand by helplessly when multitudes are being killed and displaced.
Yet what else can we responsibly do?
As New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat recently put it, “history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, and watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.
“Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.”
In that light, the President’s watchful waiting can be seen as sane rather than weak. His caution is not cowardice but rationality. Suspending arms to Egypt may be only a gesture, but what more can be done?
In the longer run, we will have to revive that cliché about not being the world’s policeman. If we don’t, we’re doomed to keep repeating the same costly mistakes in insane situations.