Jackson Diehl: Is the Obama administration soft on Gaddafi?

By Jackson Diehl
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 7:05 PM

For the Obama administration, Libya ought to be the easy case in the Middle East's turmoil. Dictator Moammar Gaddafi, aptly labeled a "mad dog" by Ronald Reagan 25 years ago, is no friend of the United States, unlike Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And he has launched a shocking war against his own people, killing at least hundreds and probably thousands in attacks by warplanes and foreign mercenaries. On Tuesday he gave a bloodcurdling speech in which he vowed to fight to the last drop of blood and cited the Tiananmen square massacre as an example.

Yet the administration so far has declined to directly condemn Gaddafi, call for his ouster, or threaten sanctions. Instead, it has repeated the same bland language about restraint and "universal rights" that it has used to respond to the uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, and other countries with pro-U.S. regimes.

Hours after Gaddafi spoke on Tuesday, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was asked at his regular briefing for reporters about the dictator's demented vow "to stay and to die a martyr and never give up."

"Again, you know, this ultimately and fundamentally an issue between, you know, the Libyan government, its leader, and the Libyan people," Crowley replied. Noting that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had expressed "grave concerns about the Libyan response to these protesters," he added, "We want to see universal rights respected and we want to see the government respond to the aspirations of its people."

Really? Given that massacres on the scale of Tiananmen may well be taking place in Tripoli and other cities, this response was flabbergasting. Does the United States really believe that crimes against humanity are "an issue between the Libyan government...and the Libyan people?" Does it seriously believe that Gaddafi will respond to "the aspiration of [the] people" after his chilling rant?

Reporters at the State Department were quick to ask these questions. "P.J., this is essentially, you know, a bloodbath that is going on there," came the first. "And it seems when you were talking about this that it's a very calm approach...Is there a sense of urgency?"

"Of course," Crowley replied. But then he said that the U.S. response would come through the U.N. Security Council, which is meeting Tuesday afternoon -- and where Russia and China are likely to oppose meaningful action.

Question: "P.J., how can you frame the debate as it's internal things between the Libyan people and government when some reports talked about thousands of people dead...Isn't surely the responsibility of the United States to stand up against thousands of people killed?"

Crowley: "Well, and the secretary of state said, you know, very clearly and very compellingly in her statement yesterday that the bloodshed needs to stop." She did not, however, threaten sanctions, call for Gaddafi's departure or even directly blame him for the killing.

Question: "Well, P.J., part of the problem is that here you've been talking about...how this has to be resolved through an internal debate in Libya. You want to see the government engage the protesters. And the problem with that is that the debate so far has been anti-aircraft guns and bullets and, you know, fighter jets bombing the people. That's the government side of the debate."

All too true. Crowley's answer: "We are going to respond as an international community. We'll have a response through the Security Council."

What could explain this weak response? Is the administration worried about U.S. energy companies that recently began operating in Libya, or the safety of American citizens it is now seeking to evacuate? Does it imagine that it needs to preserve a relationship with Gaddafi, in case he kills enough of his people to survive?

Whatever the reason, the administration's response to the Libyan bloodshed lacks a sense of morality as well as common sense. If Gaddafi continues to strafe and slaughter civilians in the streets of Tripoli, Crowley's words could come back to haunt him.

UPDATE: Clinton said later Tuesday that the safety of U.S. citizens in Libya, including embassy employees awaiting evacuation, is the "highest priority" for the Obama administration--which, as I suggested above, may explain the mild rhetoric so far. "Now, as always, the safety and wellbeing of Americans has to be our highest priority," Clinton told reporters at the State Department in Washington. She added that the U.S. joins the international community in "strongly condemning" the crackdown.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company