Libya: Gaddafi is about to force Barack Obama’s hand

Libya: Gaddafi is about to force Barack Obama’s hand
Barack Obama is about to learn a lesson – the US president can’t be neutral, writes Anne Applebaum.

Is it cowardice? Is it indecisiveness? Or is it clever diplomacy? Depending on who you ask in Washington, you’ll get a different explanation for President Barack Obama’s silence, to date, on the subject of Libya. Since the uprising began, he has made only one extended comment on the Libyan rebellion, and it was thoroughly anodyne.

He declared – surprise! – that the US “strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people.” He said he had “instructed his administration to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis.” And then he concluded: “The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power.”

That last sentence contains the key to the president’s thinking. Odd though it sounds, the debate inside the administration isn’t merely about whether to intervene in Libya: it’s about how America can help defeat Gadaffi without doing any collateral damage – and without stigmatising the Libyan rebels as American puppets. At least some of the Libyan rebels haven’t wanted to be stigmatised as American puppets either: the slogan “No foreign intervention: Libyan people can manage it alone” now has its own Facebook page. To put it differently, nobody wants the citizens of Tripoli to rally to the dictator’s cause because the Yankees are coming.

So far, the administration’s answer has been to let others lead. The US has gladly let France and Britain present the proposed no-fly zone to the UN security council. President Obama has been content to see Nicolas Sarkozy become the first to recognize the Benghazi revolutionary council. He’s no doubt delighted to hear David Cameron sounding more robust than himself. And – although nobody has said so openly – the US intelligence community was surely relieved that a British MI6 team, not the CIA, bungled the first attempt to contact the rebels on the ground.

Obama’s advisers, spokesman and off-the-record briefers are all saying that this passivity is not a sign of weakness, but rather a deliberate strategy. It’s not that he’s slowly being “brought round” by Cameron or Sarkozy, it’s that he actually wants them to be seen doing most of the talking. “This is the Obama conception of the US role in the world – to work through multilateral organisations and bilateral relationships,” one of them told the Washington Post on Thursday.

The trouble is that this isn’t a very new or original conception of America’s role in the world. In fact, it was also Bill Clinton’s conception of its role in the world, at least before he wound up bombing Belgrade because he couldn’t get any bilateral or multilateral organisations to do it with him. It also contains an important flaw: for much of the past two decades, it’s proved impossible to get the United Nations to sign on to any international action – military, humanitarian, financial or economic – because the leaders of Russia and China, fearing the day when their own peoples may rise up against them, will veto or undermine almost anything that looks too much like intervention, whether sanctions on Iran or a no-fly zone in Sudan. Neither the president nor his defence secretary has shown much interest in Nato up until now either, generally treating the alliance as a boring obligation. In fact, the time for Nato to discuss possible reactions to a violent revolution in the Arab world was last month or last year.

In practice, there is no obvious multilateral forum through which Obama can act to tackle the crisis in Libya. Until this week, Washington was hoping the Libyan rebels might win by themselves. But now Gaddafi’s troops are advancing, he has more weapons, more mercenaries, and apparently a lot of cash. A Gaddafi victory, culminating in a slaughter, would be a disaster for Libya, and would set a disastrous precedent in the Arab world and beyond. Other tyrants will conclude that Mubarak and Ben Ali were wrong, that the way to stay in power is to be even more brutal and kill even more people. Here is the irony: a Gaddafi victory would also be disastrous for Obama. Libyan rebels will accuse him of colluding with Gaddafi. Domestic opponents will accuse him of weakness.

In the next few days, Obama will have to decide whether to enforce a no-fly zone or – and this may be the more likely solution – to offer food, weapons and political support to the rebels, probably in conjunction not with the UN but with an ad hoc “coalition of the willing”, as George W. Bush would have put it. There are heavy costs to saying yes, and heavy costs to saying no. Either way, Obama is about to learn a lesson: because of America’s size and military power, the American president does not have the option to remain neutral indefinitely, to let others lead or to offer mere moral encouragement – even though those are the policies this president would prefer.

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