The perspective could not be more clear. Americans, is this what you want to be known for? “Ah, bow before the Peace Prize Savior!”
‘This is the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world—to work through multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified.”
—White House National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes, March 10, 2011, as quoted in the Washington Post
“They bombed us with tanks, airplanes, missiles coming from every direction. . . . We need international support, at least a no-fly zone. Why is the world not supporting us?”
—Libyan rebel Mahmoud Abdel Hamid, March 10, 2011, as quoted in The Wall Street Journal
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.
Three weeks into the Libyan uprising, here are some of the live action highlights from what Mr. Obama likes to call “the international community”:
• The United Nations Security Council has imposed an arms embargo, but with enough ambiguity that no one knows whether it applies only to Gadhafi or also to the opposition. (I’m not making this up…) Even the U.S. State Department and White House don’t agree.
• The U.N. has referred events to the International Criminal Court for a war crimes investigation. Mr. Obama said yesterday this sent a message to Gadhafi that “the world is watching,” as if Gadhafi didn’t know. But it also sends a message that leaving Libya without bloodshed is not an option, because he and his sons will still be pursued for war crimes. Had Reagan pursued this strategy in the Philippines, Marcos might never have gone into exile.
• France has recognized the opposition National Council in Benghazi, though the U.S. is only now sending envoys to meet with the opposition for the first time. Dozens of Western reporters can get rebel leaders on the phone, an opposition delegation has visited French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Paris, but the U.S. is still trying to figure out who these people are. The American envoys better hurry because the rebels may soon be dead
• The French want a no-fly zone, but the Italians and Germans object. NATO is having “a series of conversations about a wide range of options,” as President Obama put it yesterday, but NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emerged from a meeting of defense ministers in Brussels on Thursday saying that “We considered . . . initial options regarding a possible no-fly zone in case NATO were to receive a clear U.N. mandate” (our emphasis). The latter isn’t likely because both China and Russia object, but no doubt NATO will keep conversing about the “range of options” next week.
• Even as opposition leaders were asking for help, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the world on 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.
We could go on, but you get the idea. When the U.S. fails to lead, the world reverts to its default mode as a diplomatic Tower of Babel. Everyone discusses “options” and “contingencies” but no one has the will to act, while the predators march.
This was true in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s until the U.S. shamed Europe and NATO into using force with or without a U.N. resolution. And it has been true in every case in which the world finally resisted tyrants or terrorists, from the Gulf War to Afghanistan to Iraq. When the U.S. chooses to act like everyone else, the result is Rwanda, Darfur and now Libya.
One difference in Libya is that the damage from a Gadhafi victory would not merely be humanitarian, though that would be awful enough. The only way Gadhafi can subdue Benghazi and the east now is with a door-to-door purge and systematic murder. The flow of refugees heading for Southern Europe would also not be small.
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.