After a month of merciless slaughter carried out by Muammar Gaddafi against his own people, the United Nations Security Council has finally bestirred itself and passed a resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya and air strikes to assist the rebels in toppling the dictator. The resolution also authorizes all military actions “short of a ground assault” to help the opposition bring down Gaddafi. Some are questioning, however, whether this maneuver is too little, too late, and whether U.S. leadership would have made the difference.
Less than a week ago, the White House was resisting an Anglo-French proposal for a no-fly zone and fought against including one in a previous Security Council resolution. Defense Secretary Gates was strongly opposed and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff questioned the necessity for one.
Few in the administration appeared to have the stomach for any kind of intervention – at least any kind that would be decisive. The exception was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had been quietly lobbying the White House for the U.S. to come out from behind the skirts of the United Nations and assert its traditional role as leader in a world crisis.
Instead, the Obama administration deferred to President Sarkozy of France, whose government almost immediately recognized the Libyan opposition government while working with Great Britain to organize the G-8 to supply some assistance to the rebels. Chancellor Merkel’s Germany squashed that idea (with the assistance of Russia), but it was clear to anyone who cared to notice that France, not the United States, had taken the lead in organizing the international community against Gaddafi.
At a contentious G-8 meeting on Monday in Paris, Clinton was reduced to a sideline observer as diplomats tried to hash out a course of action on Libya. Repeated urgings from participants for a stronger U.S. response in the near term was met with silence from the U.S. Secretary of State. One diplomat told Foreign Policy Magazine, “Frankly we are just completely puzzled,” the diplomat said. “We are wondering if this is a priority for the United States.” Later, in a private meeting with President Sarkozy, Mrs. Clinton could only say repeatedly that “there are difficulties,” when queried about a stronger U.S. response. It is unclear whether she was referring to difficulties caused by Russia at the UN or difficulties at the White House with getting Obama to make a decision.
Indeed, a Clinton “insider” told Joshua Hersh of The Daily that Mrs. Clinton was “fed up” with “a president who couldn’t make up his mind,” and was looking for a way out. Clinton told Wolf Blitzer that she had no desire to serve in a second Obama administration, nor did she express interest in running for president again. The source described to Hersh the Obama foreign policy shop, saying, “It’s amateur night,” and that Clinton had grown tired of the administration’s waffling. She had opened the State Department to the former staff at the Libyan embassy, giving them an office and worked hard to get the Arab League to back the no-fly zone.
And yet, by Wednesday afternoon, the administration had completely abandoned its previous somnolent stance on Libya, and came out strongly at the United Nations for a no-fly zone and what is being referred to as a “no-drive zone” to prevent Gaddafi’s tanks and armored personnel carriers from attacking the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. Both actions will involve air strikes. And given the nature of the battle zone, only precision weapons and stealth technology will be effective against Gaddafi’s forces while sparing the civilian population as much as possible. That means that the burden for any military action will necessarily fall on America.
The obvious question is, what had happened in the 48 hours between the G-8 meeting on Monday and the administration’s flip-flop on Wednesday?
The answer is a massive counterattack by pro-Gaddafi forces over the past 10 days that now threatens the rebels’ hold on their unofficial capital city of Benghaizi.
Over the previous fortnight, the Obama administration had the luxury of not doing anything about Libya except jawbone against Gaddafi’s brutality because the rebels enjoyed a lot of success in taking key towns and cities. The tide began to turn on March 5, when a massive explosion at an ammunition dump in Benghazi destroyed a significant portion of rebel supplies. The rebel offensive slowed while pro-Gaddafi forces launched a large counterattack in the west that took back several key oil facilities.
In recent days, the Libyan army loyal to Gaddafi, along with African mercenaries, have used a few tanks and armored personnel carriers to push the rebels out of many of the strategic towns in the east that they had seized in the early days of the rebellion. All of a sudden – and apparently taking the administration by surprise – Gaddafi’s forces are threatening Benghazi and the rebel army is near collapse.
In fact, according to the New York Times, one American official has already admitted that a no-fly zone alone would be “too little, too late” – a belated recognition that the president’s inability to make a decision cost thousands of lives. One can legitimately wonder if 10 days ago, Britain, France, and America had taken it upon themselves to carry out the actions authorized by the UN on Thursday, the pro-Gaddafi offensive would have had as much success. As it is, the Arab League resolution asking the UN for a no-fly zone and other military action led directly to Russia and China dropping their opposition as well as to America’s change of heart.
There are many in the foreign policy establishment who oppose intervention in Libya and they make a strong case against it. But in the end, it comes down, as it always does, to America’s unique role in the world – a role that President Obama eschewed for weeks while the body count rose and the chance to rid the world of Gaddafi’s odious rule began to slip away. Even after all that has happened over the past decade, the United States still maintains the moral authority to act in a crisis even if its interests are not directly threatened. Libya, as opponents of intervention remind us, sells us very little oil and our trade with Gaddafi is a pittance. The only reason to intervene is to spare the lives of civilians who have aroused the dictator’s wrath by opposing him.
What President Obama refuses to recognize is that America abdicating its traditional role as world leader might make Western liberals feel good, but does not alter the fundamental power politics of the region or the world. It is America that the Arab world, the Libyan opposition, the Security Council, the G-8 nations, and all other players on the international stage look to for leadership when history beckons and a crisis demands firm action. It hardly matters that President Obama doesn’t want that role for America. Perhaps he is realizing now that whether he wants it or not, we are “it.”
As the Wall Street Journal points out, despite their constant anti-American rhetoric, even the Arabs fully recognize who should lead in a crisis requiring military action, and called on the U.S. by name. It would appear that everyone gets it except the man to whom this great responsibility has been entrusted. The president’s inexplicable dithering has unfortunately caused questions about American leadership to be raised by our friends and adversaries alike.