Yes, Obama intervened largely for humanitarian considerations in Libya. But it was a hesitant, unenthusiastic intervention in which no boots were on the ground beyond some Special Operations Forces, ensuring that the United States did not own the security situation of post-Gadhafi Libya. And that situation is, to say the least, messy, with no real government beyond the capital of Tripoli. Syria, which is far more bloody, intractable and regionally fraught than Libya, is unlikely to see a truly robust Western military intervention despite months of pleas on media opinion pages. The path to less bloodshed in Syria, if that is even possible, must lie through diplomacy with Iran, Russia and Turkey. Kerry and Hagel thankfully know that.
In fact, the legacy of the Iraq War still dominates U.S. foreign policy, and will do so throughout the duration of Obama's second term. Even if the new secretaries of state and defense are less cautious than they appear, they will steer away from anything that smells of a large-scale, boots-on-the-ground operation, unless it is within an international coalition enjoying near-global consensus.
Instead, Obama will want to beat his chest in the Pacific, not in the Middle East. One of the unstated reasons why Obama is intent on continuing his emphasis on the Pacific into his second term is because it allows for a demonstration of American military power without the significant risk of war erupting. Moving warships around the South and East China seas incurs little hazard because everyone in the region wants to flex their muscles while avoiding conflict. With the exception of North Korea, there are no rogue or irresponsible states in the Pacific, only modestly, territorially ambitious ones.
Thus, Obama's presidency constitutes not so much leadership as a stewardship of foreign policy. That is to say, foreign policy during his administration is in safe hands, no great initiatives or schemes have been -- or will be -- attempted, and any threats or challenges that arise will be addressed efficiently through procedural responses. It is a foreign policy that operates much like a money market fund: offering little risk, little reward and advisable during times of extreme financial upheaval, yet it loses ground to inflation and other forces over the course of the years.
Meanwhile, the journalistic and intellectual class will continue to agitate for action. And the president and his new team will continue to disappoint them most of the time, just as his old team did. Obama's new team understands just to what degree risks outweigh rewards and how limited the options usually are -- especially when taking into account the public's severely reduced, post-Iraq desire for sacrifice. The media may turn out to be severely disappointed with Kerry and Hagel, and that might actually -- much of the time, at least -- turn out for the good.