Opinion writer March 21, 2011

In the Oval Office, President Obama keeps busts of his heroes — Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. He should add one of Milton Berle, the so-called Mr. Television of the 1950s. Berle used to signal his studio audience to both continue and stop applauding by holding up one hand to wave them on and another to quiet them. This is the president’s Libya policy in a nutshell.

The Berle Doctrine, the closest thing this administration has to a coherent foreign policy, has almost certainly cost lives. It entailed a heroic amount of dithering as the Obama administration first went to war with itself — to intervene or not to intervene — with the so-called boys (Bob Gates, Tom Donilon) arguing with the girls (Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power), a summer-camp metaphor unbecoming the seriousness of the situation. Clinton ultimately got her no-fly zone but claimed no credit. “We did not lead this,” she said in Paris.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

That’s for sure. The French did this, with President Nicolas Sarkozy saying “France has decided to assume its role, its role before history.” Oui! For all the galling Gallic-ness of that statement, Sarkozy was right — as was Sen. John Kerry, who called for international intervention in the Libyan civil war almost from the onset. Along with some others, Kerry and Sarkozy appreciated that Moammar Gaddafi is a sociopath, a killer of innocents, and that should he corner his foes in Benghazi, he would massacre them with utmost glee. He virtually promised as much, and when it comes to murder, he has usually been true to his word.

The Middle East is a mess and a muddle, all of it happening at pretty close to warp speed. The search for a Unified Theory of What Is Happening is futile. Bahrain is our pal; Libya is not. Saudi Arabia has all that oil; Egypt doesn’t. Iran is our enemy and its enemies must be our friends. The scorpion that lethally stings the frog that’s transporting it across the Suez Canal is not a metaphor for the Middle East but a virtual position paper. Look: The Arab League’s Amr Moussa — its departing secretary general — called for a no-fly zone and then, appalled at the violence of this military strike, expressed second thoughts. Moussa has the countenance of a Las Vegas blackjack dealer, a rare manifestation of form following function.

Still, the Obama administration has applied incoherence to confusion. It is an odd, dangerous, mix. A day into the operation, the bedraggled chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, appeared everywhere but on Animal Planet to say that the operation he himself clearly did not favor might end with the man the president said he wanted gone — a certain Col. Gaddafi — still in power. “That’s certainly, potentially, one outcome,” Mullen said on “Meet the Press.”

The change that Obama promised has settled on us all like an irritating drizzle. His ideas were untested by either age or experience. It is one thing to decry American unilateralism and quite another to await international action when time is of the essence. It is not necessary for America always to lead, but it is sometimes necessary for it to do so — and always necessary for the president to know when that moment has arrived. Obama seems not to know. He often solves problems by ignoring them.

To tell you the truth, I don’t know whether it was appropriate for Obama to go through with his trip to South America, but it sure was symbolic. Here was his country entering yet another military operation, and there was the president in Brazil. The contrast was jarring — as if he was quite literally distancing himself from the consequences of his own policy. The man supposed to be the center of it all was on the periphery.

Obama has no stomach for the war in Afghanistan but fights it anyway. The same holds for what remains of our effort in Iraq. Now it is Libya. These missions lack clarity, and the first two were so botched by the previous administration they are beyond salvation. But Libya is — and ought to remain — a humanitarian mission, one that would have been better undertaken sooner rather than later by a unified administration that had a coherent message and was clear on its goals. It could have made an argument for staying out or it could have made a more forceful argument for going in. Instead it made both. Milton Berle now plays the White House.

cohenr@washpost.com