Why was President Obama last to speak up on Libya?

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

ONCE AGAIN, an Arab dictator is employing criminal violence in a desperate effort to remain in power - and once again, the Obama administration has been slow to find its voice. This time, the tyrant is one of the Middle East's most evil men - Moammar Gaddafi, whose regime has staged spectacular terrorist attacks against Americans in addition to brutalizing its own people. Having apparently lost control of most of the country, Mr. Gaddafi has unleashed an orgy of bloodshed in the capital, Tripoli, using foreign mercenaries and aircraft to attack his own people. Like Saddam Hussein, he has retreated to a bunker, and he has vowed to fight to "the last drop of blood."

Governments around the world have been condemning this appalling stance and the terrible slaughter it has caused. The European Union has agreed in principle to impose sanctions, and the Arab League has said Libya will be excluded from its meetings. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi all condemned the regime's violence. Said French President Nicolas Sarkozy: "The continuing brutal and bloody crackdown against the Libyan civilian population is revolting. The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights."

By late Wednesday only one major Western leader had failed to speak up on Libya: Barack Obama. Before then, the president's only comment during five days of mounting atrocities was a statement issued in his name by his press secretary late last Friday, which deplored violence that day in three countries: Yemen, Libya and Bahrain. For four subsequent days, the administration's response to the rapidly escalating bloodshed in Libya consisted of measured and relatively mild statements by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Administration officials explained this weak stance by saying they were worried about U.S. citizens, hundreds of whom were being extracted by ferry Wednesday afternoon. There were fears that the desperate Mr. Gaddafi might attack the Americans or seek to take them hostage. But the presence of thousands of European citizens in Libya did not prevent their government's leaders from forcefully speaking out and agreeing on sanctions.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Obama finally appeared at a White House podium. He said "we strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya," but he did not mention Mr. Gaddafi or call for his removal. He said the administration was preparing a "full range of options" to respond but didn't say what those might be; he made no mention of the no-fly zone that Libya's delegation at the United Nations has called for. He stressed that the United States would work through international forums - and said Ms. Clinton would travel to Geneva for a meeting of the notoriously ineffectual U.N. Human Rights Council, which counts Libya as a member.

Mr. Obama appeared eager to make the point that the United States was not taking the lead in opposing Mr. Gaddafi's crimes. "It is imperative that the nations and the peoples of the world speak with one voice," he said. "That has been our focus." Shouldn't the president of the United States be first to oppose the depravities of a tyrant such as Mr. Gaddafi? Apparently this one doesn't think so.


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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