Obama’s Libyan policy: From inactivity to fatalism

The adjectives used to describe President Obama’s approach to Libya are piling up — “paralysis,” “timidity,” “dithering.” You get the drift. The Arab League is backing a no-fly zone. Yes, the Arab League. But not the U.S. As The Post reported:

The move represents an extraordinary step by the leading Arab organization, historically reluctant to sanction a member, and provided fresh evidence of the reformist spirit recasting long-stagnating Arab politics. It was also a risky step for a number of Arab leaders facing domestic dissent of their own.

The vote significantly ratchets up pressure on the Obama administration and its European allies to act on behalf of Libya’s rebels, who are under heavy assault from Gaddafi’s far better-armed forces. NATO has called Arab League support a precondition for military action in Libya, and the Saturday vote gave new momentum to proposals for a protective no-fly zone over the oil-rich country.

One imagines that had Obama been president at critical times we would never have intervened in Bosnia, freed Kuwait from Iraqi occupation, aided pro-Western democratic fighters in Central America or liberated Grenada.

But last week you could easily get the impression that the administration was not merely refusing to act, but actually conceding defeat on behalf of the rebels. The Wall Street editorial board wrote:

Whatever else one might say about President Obama’s Libya policy, it has succeeded brilliantly in achieving its oft-stated goal of not leading the world. No one can any longer doubt the U.S. determination not to act before the Italians do, or until the Saudis approve, or without a U.N. resolution. This White House is forthright for followership.

That message also couldn’t be clearer to Moammar Gadhafi and his sons, who are busy bombing and killing their way to victory against the Libyan opposition. As the U.S. defers to the world, the world can’t decide what to do, and the vacuum is filled by a dictator and his hard men who have concluded that no one will stop them. “Hear it now. I have only two words for our brothers and sisters in the east: We’re coming,” said Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, on Thursday.

At this point followership would be a relief. Instead the administration seems to have come up with an excuse for inactivity:

Even as opposition leaders were asking for help, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the world Thursday that Gadhafi is likely to win in the long term. The administration scrambled to say this was merely a factual judgment about the balance of military power, but the message couldn’t be clearer to any of Gadhafi’s generals who might consider defecting: Do so at your peril because you will join the losing side.

One can assume that Clapper has soaked up the brew of fatalism and dismissiveness that sloshes around the White House these days. It is of course eerily reminiscent of June 2009 when Obama’s reluctance to act or speak up forcefully on behalf of Iranian protesters signaled an internal consensus that the Green Movement would flop. And when the Iranian regime waited out the protests, the “smart” folks in the administration no doubt slapped themselves on their back, impressed with their own foresight. It never dawns on them, apparently, that defeat of anti-totalitarian movements becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy when the U.S. slinks away from a confrontation. As the Journal’s editorial board put it:

If Gadhafi survives after Mr. Obama has told him to go, the blow to U.S. prestige and world order would be enormous. Dictators will learn that the way to keep America from acting is to keep its diplomats and citizens around, while mowing down your opponents as the world debates contingencies. By the time the Babelers make a decision, it will be too late. This is a dangerous message to send at any time, but especially with a Middle East in the throes of revolution.

There is still time for Mr. Obama to salvage his Libya policy, though the costs of doing so are rising every day. Libya today is what a world without U.S. leadership looks like.

And let’s not kid ourselves that this won’t have ramifications elsewhere. Eliot Cohen explains:

The administration is teaching dictators, and the populations they oppress, that you can get away with large-scale mayhem if you avoid YouTube. Instead, let the hard men do their work with assault rifles in alleys and soldering irons in lonely cellars. The thuggish leaders will be emboldened, the populations either despairing or desperate. If one hopes to aid the Arab awakening in the direction of more open and just societies, rather than to empower Islamist terror, this policy is perverse. And, finally, the U. S. has provided cover and reassurance for other unsavory actors — a deafening silence, for example, as Iran arrests leaders of the opposition.

That message is heard in Havana , Caracas, Moscow, Beijing and Pyongyang. It is also heard in Ankara, Brasila and fence-sitters around the globe who have to decide whether to rely on the United States or cut their own deals with aggressors. At this point they’d be nuts to rely on us, wouldn’t they?

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.
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