Europe takes lead on Libya, North Africa as US treads water

Even the Washington Post has begun to notice that the White House seems oddly passive in the Libyan crisis.  By this time in the crisis timeline with Egypt, Barack Obama had already demanded a “transition” in governance from the nominal US ally, Hosni Mubarak.  Last night, however, not only did Obama not call for a “transition,” he couldn’t even bring himself to say the name Moammar Gaddafi:

President Obama on Wednesday condemned Libya’s violent crackdown against a widening anti-government movement, saying the “suffering and bloodshed is outrageous, and it is unacceptable.”

But Obama did not call for a change in Libya’s autocratic government or announce specific sanctions that the United States would support to punish the country for actions that he said “violate international norms and every standard of common decency.”

Why, then, did Obama give an address at all?  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already covered that ground in public statements on behalf of the administration.  The announcement of a presidential address on the crisis in Libya raised expectations that the US had decided to offer something more substantive on the situation, perhaps new sanctions or a demand that Libya keep its air force on the ground.  Instead, Obama couldn’t even say Gaddafi’s name in scolding the government of Libya, as if that somehow was a significant distinction in a totalitarian government.

The administration noted that their first priority was to protect those American citizens that they could not yet evacuate from Libya.  However, we had plenty of Americans in Egypt when Obama demanded that Mubarak step down from power; that issue didn’t stop the White House from zig-zagging between positions for a week afterward.  It’s also worth pointing out that the EU seems to have gotten ahead of us not just on response, but on evacuation as well, which prompts the question I asked yesterday — why weren’t we prepared for an evacuation after the crises erupted in Tunisia and Egypt?

For instance, China — which doesn’t have a permanent military presence in the Mediterranean region — has already managed to evacuate 4500 nationals from Libya, and will shortly triple that number:

Two ferries carrying 4,500 Chinese workers from strife-torn Libya arrived at the Mediterranean island of Crete on Thursday, despite rough seas that left hundreds of Americans stranded on a docked ferry in Tripoli.

Passengers smiled and waved from the decks of the Greek-flagged Hellenic Spirit, which sailed from Libya’s eastern port of Benghazi, although some others needed medical attention.

Up to 15,000 Chinese are expected to arrive by ferry on Crete and fly home on chartered flights in one of China’s largest foreign evacuations in recent times. China has more than 30,000 citizens in Libya working on construction and oil projects.

France, which has a much larger contingent of its citizens in Libya than the US, charged forward into the lead yesterday:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Wednesday for the European Union to immediately adopt a set of sanctions against Libya, saying the “international community cannot stand idly by in the face of these massive human rights violations.”

France has a larger diplomatic and economic footprint in Libya, and several human rights advocates in the United States say the Obama administration’s real leverage with Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi comes through its European allies.

Really? How are those “human rights” issues getting addressed now in Libya?  That would only be true if Gaddafi was amenable to negotiating an end to his reign of terror in Libya.  Since he’s bombing and strafing his own people, I’d say that what will have to suffice is military and economic power, which puts the US in better position to flex its muscles, if we choose to do so.

So how are we leveraging our allies in Europe?  Very, very quietly:

Obama praised a U.N. Security Council resolution, passed unanimously Tuesday, calling it “a clear message that it condemns the violence in Libya, supports accountability for the perpetrators and stands with the Libyan people.”

But people close to the process said the United States remained mostly quiet during the debate over the resolution. The inability of some countries to win stronger language means that even tougher action will not pass anytime soon.

We’re not even pressing for strong language in a UN scolding.  That displays an amazing passivity, especially when dealing with a hostile regime that is hopefully in its death throes.