"The genius of you Americans," former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser reportedly once said, "is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them which we are missing."
I've always loved Nasser's lament because it encapsulated how so many people around the world fail to grasp the interplay of idealism and realism at the heart of American foreign policy. If we were simply a standard imperial power, we'd be easy to understand. If we were just a bunch of idealistic bleeding hearts, we'd be easy to understand. But as an exceptional democratic superpower, we're neither, and it can make us seem awfully inscrutable and unpredictable to Machiavellians and too calculating and selfish to the idealists.
But, for once, I am with Nasser. President Obama's response to events in the Middle East, particularly in Libya, are so opaque, so convoluted, it's tempting to think there's some ingenious master plan in effect behind the scenes that he hasn't clued us in on.
Obama keeps them guessing
Some dots to connect:
•On Feb. 16, as the temperature in Libya was rising rapidly, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked by Fox News' James Rosen whether Moammar Gadhafi is a "dictator." Crowley froze like a raccoon caught plundering your Froot Loops.
"Are you stumped?" asked Rosen. "I'm not stumped," Crowley snapped.
"So what's your answer to the question? Is he a dictator?"
Crowley mumbled, "I don't think he came to office through a democratic process."
What moral clarity about a man whose bloody rein has lasted 42 years.
•Fast forward to last Tuesday. Libya had taken a dark turn. Early in the day, the Libyan dictator announced he was willing to throw his country into bloody chaos, even if it meant turning his jets and helicopters on unarmed protesters.
That evening, Obama finally released a statement, albeit written, after he concluded a day of photo-ops in Ohio. The statement offered his condolences to the victims of the New Zealand earthquake. When everyone expected something, anything, from the leader of the free world (who, remember, had after days of inscrutable dithering, ultimately demanded the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak), Obama could only muster the courage to, in effect, lament the unprovoked assault on the good people of New Zealand by the heartless tectonic plates of the Pacific Rim.
•The next day, Obama issued a televised statement, condemning the "violence" in Libya without identifying its author by name. He did indulge in a bit of liberal nostalgia, by offering a bromide about how the whole " world is watching." Indeed, watching, but doing little. Which is exactly the way Gadhafi likes it.
•When Gadhafi's son gave an "interview" on Libyan TV warning that the country would be drenched in blood and that the family would fight to "the last bullet," a U.S. government official responded, "We are analyzing the speech of Seif al-Islam Gadhafi to see what possibilities it contains for meaningful reform." That search should work out as well as O.J.'s hunt for the real killers.
Late, and weak
The White House insisted that it wasn't being slow, but prudent, because it was eager to get Americans — potential hostages — out of the country before doing anything provocative. That sounded more like a rationalization than an explanation. Far more Americans were in Egypt during its turmoil, and there was no hint that the White House was concerned. The presence of thousands of Europeans in Libya didn't keep their leaders from offering forceful and clear condemnations. The most unfathomable part: Obama's reaction made it seem as if America was more eager to oust a 30-year ally than do the same to a 40-year enemy, whose cruelty dwarfs anything we saw from Mubarak. Harshness toward friends and conciliation toward enemies is an indecipherable policy from any angle.
Another oddity, particularly given Obama's high regard for the power of his own rhetoric, is that you'd think he'd be looking for ways to take credit for, and guide, the forces of reform in the region. Some of his defenders have tried to make the case that Obama's famous Cairo speech in 2009 fueled this year's "Arab Spring." That would be more plausible if Obama weren't in a defensive crouch.
In fairness, the White House did step up its game after the hapless ferry it sent to rescue Americans spent three days parked at the docks because of bad weather. The president dispatched Hillary Clinton to Geneva to rally the diplomatic corps, a move that no doubt stewed Gadhafi's bowels with fear.
And since the weekend, the administration committed, finally, to ousting Gadhafi.
The president was flatfooted on the Iranian protests in 2009. He was caught unprepared by the Tunisian protests this year. He was blindsided again just weeks later by the Egyptian crisis. And now, as oil prices skyrocket and calls for a Libyan no-fly zone are rendered irrelevant by the fact that Obama never bothered to move sufficient assets into the region, it's as if he is trying to make his foreign policy headaches disappear by ignoring them. I'm not sure even Nasser could find any genius there.
Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.