More on Obama's Dithering

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On Obama, multilateralism and dithering, a (European) reader writes:

You argue that Europeans were very critical of George Bush and his unreflective but decisive foreign policy and now they seem equally critical of a president who is more reflective and thinks through issues carefully and regard him as a "ditherer", implying that Europeans are never satisfied and the President is doomed whatever way he decides on an issue.

I think the issue is not so much that Bush was an instinctive President and that Obama is an intellectual, weighing up all sides of the argument, but that Obama is just indecisive. Yes, it is quite right that he should take his time on such an important issue as imposing a no fly zone on Libya with all its potential consequences but having weighed them up he has to make a choice and that seems to be what he is unprepared to do.  Following the disastrous consequences of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the American public's lack of appetite for any more war in the Middle East it is understandable, and to my mind right, that Obama would not want America to get involved but to the outside world it looks as if other countries, namely France and the UK, have made the decision and that America has reluctantly joined in. It looks as if the tail is wagging the dog.

Gordon Brown had the same problem as Obama.  He is an intellectual who studied issues very carefully but he shared the same indecisiveness.  A leader has to make very difficult choices but after much reflection he has to appear to be confident and decisive in his choice.  Obama is not giving that impression and leaving the country at such a critical time looks as if he is running away from scrutiny when the country needs his leadership.

Actually, I agree with this. Multilateralism and especially international legalism, I argued, are institutionally inclined to dithering, but it's true that Obama has added another layer of indecision all his own, and this goes beyond what was implied by careful weighing of the options. Having made up his mind that a forceful UN-backed intervention was correct, he should have made the case for it to the US public and the world, and pressed hard to get it done right. He hasn't made the case at home or abroad--his absence when the intervention began only underlines this. What little he has said is muddled. And he has indeed given the impression of being reluctantly dragged along.

I don't think it is possible for Obama to be as decisive a multilateralist as Europe wants him to be, or as strong a leader while remaining an equal partner, which Europe also wants (sometimes). So I do think that Obama's European critics are trying to have it both ways. That said, Obama could certainly have done better on both counts than he has.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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