Criticism that sounds like praise

CRITICISM THAT SOUNDS LIKE PRAISE…. The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat takes a closer look at the process the Obama administration followed in deciding to intervene in Libya, and offers what, at first glance, appears to be fairly reasonable praise.

Just a week ago, as the tide began to turn against the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, President Obama seemed determined to keep the United States out of Libya’s civil strife. But it turns out the president was willing to commit America to intervention all along. He just wanted to make sure we were doing it in the most multilateral, least cowboyish fashion imaginable.

That much his administration has achieved. In its opening phase, at least, our war in Libya looks like the beau ideal of a liberal internationalist intervention. It was blessed by the United Nations Security Council. It was endorsed by the Arab League. It was pushed by the diplomats at Hillary Clinton’s State Department, rather than the military men at Robert Gates’s Pentagon. Its humanitarian purpose is much clearer than its connection to American national security. And it was initiated not by the U.S. Marines or the Air Force, but by the fighter jets of the French Republic.

This is an intervention straight from Bill Clinton’s 1990s playbook, in other words, and a stark departure from the Bush administration’s more unilateralist methods. There are no “coalitions of the willing” here, no dismissive references to “Old Europe,” no “you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Instead, the Obama White House has shown exquisite deference to the very international institutions and foreign governments that the Bush administration either steamrolled or ignored.

That sounds more or less right. As skeptical as I am about “Operation Odyssey Dawn,” I take some solace in the way in which the decision was reached. The fact that there’s been no White House grandstanding, no bullying, and no visions of an imposition of democracy is encouraging.

But Douthat apparently doesn’t see it this way. His description of “the most multilateral, least cowboyish” national security/foreign policy strategy is intended as criticism. Indeed, Douthat believes the liberal interventionism of the 1990s — in Bosnia, in Kosovo — should serve as evidence of the general approach’s shortcomings.

Two thoughts come to mind. First, Douthat’s recollection of the efficacy of U.S. policy in Bosnia and Kosovo may need a refresher.

Second, it’s a little jarring to see an op-ed touting the merits of a “cowboyish” unilaterialsm, that disregards international institutions and coalitions, without so much as a hint of an explanation as to why this policy failed so spectacularly in the Bush/Cheney era.