The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting—and perhaps helping to bring about—American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive…
By the time of Obama’s empty speech, even the notoriously lenient Arab League had suspended Libya’s participation, and several of Qaddafi’s senior diplomatic envoys had bravely defected. One of them, based in New York, had warned of the use of warplanes against civilians and called for a “no-fly zone.” Others have pointed out the planes that are bringing fresh mercenaries to Qaddafi’s side.
In the Mediterranean, the United States maintains its Sixth Fleet, which could ground Qaddafi’s air force without breaking a sweat. But wait! We have not yet heard from the Swiss admiralty, without whose input it would surely be imprudent to proceed.
Evidently a little sensitive to the related charges of being a) taken yet again completely by surprise, b) apparently without a policy of its own, and c) morally neuter, the Obama administration contrived to come up with an argument that maximized every form of feebleness. Were we to have taken a more robust or discernible position, it was argued, our diplomatic staff in Libya might have been endangered. In other words, we decided to behave as if they were already hostages! The governments of much less powerful nations, many with large expatriate populations as well as embassies in Libya, had already condemned Qaddafi’s criminal behavior, and the European Union had considered sanctions, but the United States (which didn’t even charter a boat for the removal of staff until Tuesday) felt obliged to act as if it were the colonel’s unwilling prisoner. I can’t immediately think of any precedent for this pathetic “doctrine,” but I can easily see what a useful precedent it sets for any future rogue regime attempting to buy time. Leave us alone—don’t even raise your voice against us—or we cannot guarantee the security of your embassy. (It wouldn’t be too soon, even now, for the NATO alliance to make it plain to Qaddafi that if he even tried such a thing, he would lose his throne, and his ramshackle armed forces, and perhaps his worthless life, all in the course of one afternoon.)
More from Leon Wieseltier at TNR:
“This violence must stop.” So President Obama declared the other day about the depravity in Tripoli. This “must” is a strange mixture of stridency and passivity. It is the deontic locution familiar from the editorial pages of newspapers, where people who have no power to change the course of events demand that events change their course. This “must” denotes an order, or a permission, or an obligation, or a wish, or a will. It does not denote a plan. It includes no implication, no expectation, of action. It is the rhetoric of futility: this infection must stop, this blizzard must stop, this madness must stop. But this infection, this blizzard, this madness, like this violence, will not stop, because its logic is to grow. It will stop only if it is stopped. Must the murder of his own people by this madman stop, Mr. President? Then stop it…
Obama’s statement about Libya suggests another explanation for his slow pace. This was its climax: “So let me be clear. The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.”
They are fighting authoritarianism, but he is fighting imperialism. Who in their right mind believes that this change does represent the work of the United States or any foreign power? To be sure, there are conspiracy theorists in the region who are not in their right mind, and will hold such an anti-American view; but this anti-Americanism is not an empirical matter. They will hate us whatever we do. I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention. I see an American president with a paralyzing fear that it will. In those Middle Eastern streets and squares that have endured the pangs of democratization, the complaint has been not that the United States has intervened, but that the United States has not intervened. The awful irony is that Obama is more haunted by the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East than are many people in the Middle East, who look to him for support in their genuinely epochal struggle against the social death in which their tyrannies have imprisoned them. He worries about the repetition of an old paradigm. They are in the midst of a new paradigm. He does not want to be Bush. They want him to be Obama; or what Obama was supposed to be.
He goes on to ask why Qaddafi should enjoy the services of foreign fighters but not the rebels. As enjoyably indignant as both pieces are, the quiet X factor here, I think, is Saudi Arabia. Our “friends” in Riyadh may yet square off with the discontented in their midst, and when they do, Obama won’t want to feel bound to intervene militarily if things start to get hairy. We’ve seen what the Saudis (or rather, their clients) are willing to do in Bahrain; if that sort of confrontation comes to the Kingdom, then The One will either have to follow his Libyan precedent and act on the side of a population weaned on Wahhabism or else decline to act in the name of “stability” and earn the contempt of everyone in the region who isn’t already contemptuous of him/us. The White House and its mouthpieces haven’t mentioned the Saudis publicly once, I believe, since the very first protests broke out in Tunisia late last year, but they cast a shadow over every decision. The Kingdom is the ultimate prize for jihadis, for reasons both economic and religious. If Obama has to grit his teeth and sit back on Libya lest the Saudis’ position become even more precarious, he’s going to do it. Sad but, I think, true.
As I write this, stories are hitting the wires about Qaddafi’s mercenaries firing into crowds of people while they marched, and over 200 Arab groups from 18 countries are now calling for a no-fly zone. An early draft of the new British/French Security Council resolution on Libya mentioned an NFZ but the new draft no longer does, which should be all the proof you need of how reluctant the west is to even hint of getting involved here. If you missed it in Headlines earlier, I highly recommend this piece at Foreign Policy about how Obama’s dropping the ball — not on Libya but on Tunisia, the first country to oust its dictator and still the spiritual heart of the “Arab spring.” As noted in our very first post about this winter’s Middle East upheaval, Tunisia’s known for comparatively higher incomes, greater rights for women, and better education standards than other Muslim countries. Of all the nations across the Middle East, with the possible exception of Iran, it’s probably the best candidate to transition to liberal-ish democracy. Since the rest of the Arab world’s been looking to them for inspiration, our best option for heading off the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere is to cultivate liberalization in Tunisia and hope that protesters elsewhere demand that their governments follow suit. That was my point, in fact, in arguing that regime change in Iran would become the key to U.S. regional policy going forward: If you want to place Islamism in disfavor, you’d better offer an alternative model. (That was one of the points of democracy in Iraq, no?) Whether we could buy our way into Tunisia and help set up some sort of pilot program to put them on track, I don’t know, but the people there are still motivated and dissatisfied with the remnants of the Ben Ali dictatorship that remain in charge. Are we even trying?