President Obama has had to walk a fine diplomatic line in America’s dealings with the various uprisings throughout North Africa and the Middle East the past month or so. The governments of Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Bahrain are all strong US allies and their fall would cause numerous headaches for American interests and foreign policies. Libya, on the other hand, does not really fit into this category. Its government leader, Muammar Qaddafi, has been a thorn in the US’s side for decades and has American blood on his hands. Even after giving up his nuclear program to the Bush administration, the Qaddafi regime has on many occasions, including in the past several days, rhetorically stick his thumb in America’s eye.
President Obama has been slow to speak out against and act against the Qaddafi regime at a time when its domestic legitimacy could not be lower. Qaddafi is right now hiring mercenaries to kill and suppress his own people. What does the US have to lose by speaking out and working with the rest of the civilized world (including the Arab League) to bring about his quick demise? Not much.
I would like to highlight two critiques of the Obama administration’s lack of action against Qaddafi from two left-liberal publications. First, Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic…
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.
And now Christopher Hitchens in Slate…
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.
This has been especially evident in the case of Libya. For weeks, the administration dithered over Egypt and calibrated its actions to the lowest and slowest common denominators, on the grounds that it was difficult to deal with a rancid old friend and ally who had outlived his usefulness. But then it became the turn of Muammar Qaddafi—an all-round stinking nuisance and moreover a long-term enemy—and the dithering began all over again. Until Wednesday Feb. 23, when the president made a few anodyne remarks that condemned “violence” in general but failed to cite Qaddafi in particular—every important statesman and stateswoman in the world had been heard from, with the exception of Obama. And his silence was hardly worth breaking. Echoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had managed a few words of her own, he stressed only that the need was for a unanimous international opinion, as if in the absence of complete unity nothing could be done, or even attempted. This would hand an automatic veto to any of Qaddafi’s remaining allies. It also underscored the impression that the opinion of the United States was no more worth hearing than that of, say, Switzerland. Secretary Clinton was then dispatched to no other destination than Geneva, where she will meet with the U.N. Human Rights Council—an absurd body that is already hopelessly tainted with Qaddafi’s membership.