One reaction among liberals to the Bush years and to Iraq was to retreat from “idealism” toward “realism,” in which the United States would act cautiously and, above all, according to national interests rather than moral imperatives. The debate is rooted in the country’s early history. America, John Quincy Adams argued, “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all,” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own. In 1966, Adams’s words were repeated by George Kennan, perhaps the most articulate realist of the twentieth century, in opposing the Vietnam War. …The use of force to stop human-rights abuses or to promote democracy, they argue, usually ends poorly.” – Ryan Lizza

Consequentialist? Say what?

Mike Allen led with Ryan Lizza’s story in the New Yorker yesterday in his Playbook, logging it under “West Wing Must Read.”

It requires hip-waders.

Philosophically speaking, Lizza contends that whether a decision by a president is moral or right depends on the consequences of that action, which he concludes makes Pres. Obama’s evolving doctrine “consequentialist.” By that theory isn’t every president’s doctrine consequentialist by nature?

Oy, some experts…

Read it anyway, at least then you’ll understand Libya.

If there is such a thing in foreign policy as a “consequentialist” doctrine, Harry Truman might agree, though his interpretation of Lizza’s theory would be far different from Obama’s, because Truman believed the buck stopped in the White House. John F. Kennedy, a president who doesn’t resemble our current one at all, wouldn’t agree at all with Lizza, because imagining Kennedy bombing Libya requires enormous feats of mental acrobatics, regardless of the consequences.

Libya is doing for Pres. Obama exactly what I warned would happen.

Interesting premise pulled out of thin air to try to unwind whatever it is Pres. Obama is attempting to do on foreign policy, which is hardly clear at this point. Unfortunately, Obama’s actions also reveal timidity to declare U.S. intent, because admitting an altered U.S. policy based on Lizza’s “consequentialist” theory would cause political havoc for Obama in 2012.

From Lizza’s article:

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”The Consequentialist – How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy.

Ah, China, but first America has to wean itself off of our Middle East obsession, which includes that we can create an outcome by anything we do. But the take away on this one is “leading from behind,” with the notion of a “humanitarian hawk” haunting U.S. foreign policy in a very real way, the latest in Libya, neoconservative unilateralism replaced with righteous certainty of America the savior in countries that are not of strategic interest, meanwhile we can do nothing in Bahrain, with sanctions on Syria coming in 3… 2… … .. 10… 9… 8… Oh, and just try to do anything in the Middle East by pissing off the Saudis.

David Drezner’s take:

On the structure – despite Lizza’s 9,000 words, and despite Obama’s stated intention to reorient American foreign policy to be less Middle East-focused, the essay…. is totally focused on the Middle East. I’m not saying that the Middle East is unimportant, but I’d have liked to have read something about how the Obama administration is dealing with the rest of the world. Indeed, Lizzaa notes that Obama visited South America during the opening days of the Libya operation precisely “to show that America has interests in the rest of the world.” Despite this effort, the thrust of the article demonstrates its futility during the start of a war. New military conflicts crowd out attention that should be paid to other arenas of foreign policy. It would have been nice to see how the administration’s strategy is playing/affecting the rest of the world.

The inside elite from Pontificate Hill, of which Ryan Lizza is certainly one on foreign policy, lays down that Obama is a consequentialist, which is really just shorthand for making stuff up as he goes along, moving from crisis to crisis with no guiding light, except outcome. Good God.

Brzezinski, too, has become disillusioned with the President. “I greatly admire his insights and understanding. I don’t think he really has a policy that’s implementing those insights and understandings. The rhetoric is always terribly imperative and categorical: “˜You must do this,’ “˜He must do that,’ “˜This is unacceptable.’ “ Brzezinski added, “He doesn’t strategize. He sermonizes.”

Then Mike Allen says Lizza’s is “West Wing Must Read,” which sends the message.

All it means to me is that if Lizza and Allen are correct we’re in bigger trouble than I thought we were and I didn’t think that was possible.