Guarded Responses vs LeadershipPosted: February 25, 2011
I’ve got an on again off again relationship with Christopher Hitchens’ writings. It frequently depends on the topic and frankly, how much he’s probably been drinking at that time. He’s arrogant, curmudgeonly, erudite, and smug but always interesting to read. Here’s something to chew on from his latest at Salon called ‘Is Barrack Obama Secretly Swiss?” on the President’s overly guarded response to the recent Arab uprisings.
This is not merely a matter of the synchronizing of announcements. 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.
I have to admit that I’ve had my own concerns about our tepid national response to the incredible thuggish brutality going on in Libya. First, there’s the news that helicopters were shooting at citizens in the streets. Then, there were the executions of Libyan soldiers who refused to follow the orders to shoot at citizens. Finally, there’s the news of mercenaries paid sums to commit violence on whoever they find in the streets. How much does it take for one to come out and say this is just plain evil and should stop now or else?
Obama’s made one tepid statement on Libya as well as one tepid statement on events at home that concern the stripping of collective bargaining rights from US workers. Both should be low hanging fruit for any Democratic politician. Libya murdered all those Syracuse students in the Lockerbie bombing. Unions fund and work tirelessly for their Democratic candidates including this President. Obama’s sure coming up short on words these days for a man with legendary status as a speech giver and TV personality. His new press secretary Jay Carney appears to be a Milquetoast spokesmodel also whose bland nonresponse responses must reflect the dithering at the top.
Okay, well, back to Hitchens for the strong words …
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.)
I’ve always thought Hitchens to be a war monger. His foreign policy diatribes are usually way over the top for my taste but I have to admit that this particular opinion piece is spot on. If we can’t use our position as the world’s superpower to at least publicly condemn these kinds of atrocities, what good are we? There has to be more to do here than just wait around until the tide shows some sign of turning. I’m not suggesting we invade Tripoli but some kind of sign of moral comprehension of the situation–even if it’s just a toughly worded condemnation–would certainly create a signal that the US will not stand around silent while some crazed dictator slaughters his people. Right now, it just seems like the U.S. is just going to sit on its thumbs and watch the slaughter. White House responses to Egypt, Libya, and the suppression of labor in the U.S. feel like a series of “The Pet Goat” reading moments. How guarded of a response do you have to make to thugs?
U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday imposed sanctions on Libya’s government for its violent repression of a popular uprising, signing an executive order blocking property and transactions related to the country.