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Rocks and Hard Places: Why Governing Is So Hard

Every four years, as I set off to cover another presidential election cycle, I secretly ask myself: Why do any of these people want to be president?

Consider the choices that have faced the current president just within the last few weeks. As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak collapsed under the weight of popular discontent, the White House found itself in a diplomatic corner. Defend our closest Arab partner? Or take a cue from the tumult in the streets? After some early fumbling, the U.S. finally ended up on what turned out to be the right side of events.

Then, natural disaster intervened when an earthquake and tsunami severely undermined Japan’s nuclear reactors. In the wave of worry that followed, President Obama’s previous support of nuclear production as a clean energy alternative came into question.

And now there is Libya. After initially adopting a hands-off he-whose-name-shall-not be-mentioned approach, the president decided Moammar Gadhafi must go, but that the U.S. should not be the ones pushing him out the door – at least not alone.

It is difficult to remain upright on a tightrope this taut. Perhaps this is why when Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough appeared on the PBS NewsHour this week, subtitles would have been useful.

“We are setting aside for ourselves a very tightly defined, finite, accomplishable mission here in the early part of this effort,” he told me, “where we’re going to shape the environment using our unique assets and then enable our international colleagues, our allies in Europe and our partners in the Arab world to take over the conduct of the no-fly zone.”

(One day later, White House spokesman, Jay Carney, came up with a more concise, if still purposely imprecise, version of the doctrine. This was not war, but rather “a time-limited, scope-limited military action.”)

Let’s assume for a moment that these definitions are clear, that the coalition exercise is “time-limited,” “scope-limited” and “tightly defined.” How do we know when it’s over, I asked McDonough? “We’re not talking about an exit strategy,” he replied.

Rock, meet hard place.

This sort of parsing has proved difficult for the president’s Republican critics as well, as Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post this week.

Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker who is flirting very publicly with a run for the 2012 GOP Presidential nomination, suggested earlier this month to FOX News that the U.S. should intervene immediately. But by this week, he was criticizing the administration for stepping in. “I would not have intervened,” he told NBC’s “Today Show.”

He has an explanation for this, of course — something to do with covert versus overt action and the “Eisenhower-Reagan model.” Sounded like another rock and another hard place to me.

Similarly, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour – who also has an eye on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. – got caught up in the political crosswinds. At the beginning of the Libyan crisis, he was the statesman.

“Whenever our men and women are involved in military action, every American stands with them and supports them as I do,” he said. “This is not the time to critique what the administration has done or will do.”

Umm, not so fast. By Thursday morning, Barbour’s tone had shifted. The president, he told a radio show, was failing to lead.

“Since World War II, the world has looked to America for leadership,” he said. “But we haven’t provided leadership in this administration. In fact, the Obama administration’s position has been to say, you know, we’re just one the boys, so we’re not going to try to be the leader.”

Being “one of the boys,” in a previous administration, was considered assembling a “coalition of the willing.” But now, according to House Speaker John Boehner, it seems coalitions translate to collaboration with “foreign entities such as the United Nations and the Arab League.” It’s all so confusing.

I do possess a measure of sympathy for politicians in search of a firm foothold in a slippery situation. But there do remain far more questions than answers when it comes to the critical dominoes falling in the Middle East and Northern Africa. In Egypt, Yemen, Libya and now Syria, the common thread remains this: If the leader (tyrant/ally) in charge is driven from power – what happens next?

Talk about a rock and a hard place.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.

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