Barack Obama’s policy toward the Libyan struggle for freedom is no longer a muddle. It is now a disgrace.
Here is what his administration and its allies have told the world, and the Libyan dictator, and the Libyan rebels, in recent days. The director of national intelligence declared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a chilling example of self-fulfilling prophecy, that “over the longer term Qaddafi will prevail.” The secretary of defense continued to insist that the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya is too much for America to do, and to frighten the public with the warning that it would constitute a military operation, as if all military operations are like all other military operations, and therefore the prelude to the sort of wars that would require us, as he put it in an earlier outburst about Iraq and Afghanistan, to have our heads examined. Of course nobody is suggesting that a single American soldier step foot on Libyan soil: Gates’s exaggeration of the logistics and the implications of a no-fly zone, which the Libyan resistance is begging for, is the purest demagoguery, a way of inhibiting the discussion of what really can be done in this plainly just cause, a revival of Powellism, a cheap slippery slope argument tricked out as a responsible concern about the ladder of escalation. The secretary of state, also on Capitol Hill, insisted that a no-fly zone must have the support of some international authority. “Absent international authorization,” she instructed, “the United States acting alone would be stepping into a situation the consequences of which would be unforeseeable.” Of course the United States, which is after all still the United States, could go and arrange international authorization, as it has sometimes done in the past; but this would require American leadership, and the Obama administration seems to regard American leadership as an early form of American hegemony. It may be, as Clinton said, that the consequences of a no-fly zone would be unforeseeable, but the consequences of the absence of a no-fly zone are entirely foreseeable. They are even seeable. We see them daily, most recently in the massacre at Zawiyah. And in a press briefing prior to the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels, the secretary general of the alliance began by intoning that “the whole world is watching” and then announced that “NATO has no intention to intervene in Libya.” He did not grasp the heartless illogic of what he said—though if his remark could be construed as saying that the whole world is watching NATO have no intention to intervene in Libya, there was some truth to it. And he followed with these unforgettable observations: “If these systematic attacks against the Libyan people continue it may amount to a crime against humanity. And many people around the world may be tempted to say let’s do something to prevent this massacre against the Libyan civilian population.” Some of us may indeed be so tempted. But “on the other hand,” Rasmussen continued, “there are a lot of sensitivities in the region as far as foreign military intervention is concerned, or what might be considered a foreign military intervention.” Get it? We will not act to prevent a crime against humanity because by doing so we will offend—who, exactly? Not the Libyans who are clamoring for Western assistance, or the Egyptians who looked to us for unequivocal support in their fight for freedom, or the Iranians who made a similar mistake. No, we will offend only a certain doctrinaire Western notion of what the contemporary Arab world thinks about the West, a notion that the democratic upheavals in the Arab world are making manifestly obsolete. We will offend not their assumptions, but our assumptions about their assumptions. It was no wonder that Gates, when he emerged from the meeting in Brussels, told reporters that whereas NATO planning for the possibility of a no-fly zone would continue, “that’s the extent of it.” We are only planning. Why don’t these people just come right out and tell the Libyan resistance to drink poison? Perhaps they fear that they may then have to provide the poison.
In sum, the situation is ominous. Darkness is descending on the Libyan struggle for freedom, and we are helping to lower it. While the various secretaries were articulating their abdications, Qaddafi was committing a slaughter in Zawiyah and employing his monopoly of the skies to drive the rebels out of Ras Lanuf. An eastern offensive is clearly imminent. (This is not a civil war. This is a war by a dictator upon his people. There is no other half of the Libyan population fighting for Qaddafi.) All this, of course, affects the sensitivities of the Libyan freedom fighters. “We’re waiting for the Americans to follow,” a rebel spokesman bitterly told Anthony Shadid and David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times about Sarkozy’s splendid decision to recognize the Libyan provisional government. (Morally America now lags behind France!) Shadid and Kirkpatrick also reported that “as NATO member nations met in Brussels to discuss options for Libya, the rebels cursed the United States and its allies for failing to impose a no-flight zone.” Why is the White House content to foment this variety of anti-Americanism? The answer is that it is so haunted by past Arab anger at American action in the Middle East that it cannot recognize present Arab anger at American inaction in the Middle East.
And the president? He declares that Qaddafi must go and that we will stand with the Libyan people, and then he does nothing. No, that’s not right. He consults and consults, and his staff works round the clock, and economic sanctions are instituted against the rampaging dictator who has tens of billions of dollars in cash. Obama is prepared to act, just not consequentially. He does not want the responsibility for any Arab outcome. He says they must do it for themselves. But they are doing it for themselves. They merely need help. And the help they need is easy for us to provide. (Jam their fucking communications.) And their cause is freedom, which is allegedly our cause. What they seek from Obama is an extended hand. What they are getting is a clenched fist. If Muammar Qaddafi takes Benghazi, it will be Barack Obama’s responsibility. That is what it means to be the American president. The American president cannot but affect the outcome. That is his burden and his privilege. He has the power to stop such an atrocity, so if the atrocity is not stopped it will be because he chose not to use his power. Perhaps that is why Obama has been telling people, rather tastelessly, that it would be easier to be the president of China. Obama will not be rushed. He is a man of the long game. But the Libyan struggle for freedom, and the mission of rescue, is a short game. That is the temporality of such circumstances. If you do not act swiftly, you have misunderstood the situation. Delay means disaster. Does Obama have any idea of what Qaddafi’s victory will mean for the region and its awakening?
We have flinched this way before. For many days I have had a sickening 1992–1995 feeling. Consider these sentences, from a book I lugubriously took off my shelf: “Why does the United States stand so idly by? The most common answer is, ‘We didn’t know.’ This is not true. … A second response to the question of why the United States did so little is that it could not have done much to stop the horrors. [But] the only way to ascertain the consequences of U.S. diplomatic, economic, or military measures would have been to undertake them. … If anything testifies to the U.S. capacity for influence, it is the extent to which the perpetrators kept an eye trained on Washington and other Western capitals as they decided how to proceed. … The real reason the United States did not do what it could and should have done to stop genocide was not a lack of knowledge or influence but a lack of will. Simply put, American leaders did not act because they did not want to.” The Libyan calamity is not genocide, but genocide is not the only horror that has a claim on American agency. I have taken those wise sentences from "A Problem from Hell," Samantha Power’s sad, great study of earlier American failures to act against mass-murdering tyrants. Is Obama now writing his own chapter in that story? Why do we not still remember that story? It is disgusting, as the Libyan rebels are driven further and further back, to learn that we must discover it all over again.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.