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March 6, 2011 / J. Shaw

John Bolton:As the White House Slept, U.S. Caught Off Guard…


BY John Bolton….As Libya‘s bloody conflict rages on, important lessons for U.S. foreign policy are emerging from the past month’s Middle East turmoil. Starting with Tunisia, the Obama administration has seemed repeatedly surprised by anti-regime demonstrations, unsure of the stakes for America and its allies and unprepared conceptually and operationally to deal with the consequences.

In Egypt, there was contradictory, unhelpful White House rhetoric when silence would have been prudent – and in Libya, silence when strong American words (and actions) were amply warranted.

But even presidential rhetoric is only rhetoric. The real test is whether our government is prepared for uncertainty, and how its policies are implemented under stress.

Here, the Obama administration has looked shaky at best. Consider the following questions we should now be asking about recent events in order to increase our readiness before the unknown overwhelms us yet again.

1. Did we have adequate intelligence of what was about to happen? The obvious answer is “no,” across the board. The ensuing debate about why we were caught so flatfooted will undoubtedly reverberate over the next several months. We are not looking for predictions, but for more information for policy makers and less reliance on foreign intelligence services. Our dearth of human sources in the Middle East has been a problem for decades during many administrations. And what we need now are more resources and operations, not fewer.

2. Were we prepared to protect American citizens, in country or through evacuation if necessary? This is our government’s first responsibility. As Libya descended into chaos, our government was plainly unprepared; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans were at risk in the conflict’s perilous early hours. Our readiness must be vastly improved. Yet even now, we have precious few military assets in the Mediterranean, and we have escaped a 1979 Iran hostage-style crisis only through good fortune. We cannot risk a repetition.

3. Do we fully understand our interests, and the pluses and minuses of precipitous regime change? This is the grand strategy question, one too complex to be answered in a few words. But I am not reassured by Obama’s reactive handling of the crisis.

The truth is, while regional turmoil ignited nearly simultaneously in several countries, the causes of the uprisings require intelligent analysis of what’s going on in each nation, not trying to cram it artificially into a preconceived narrative.

We haven’t seen this emerge. In Egypt, Obama had at least four different official positions before Hosni Mubarak finally fell. His wavering damaged American credibility throughout the region, particularly with other governments that considered themselves friendly to the United States.



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