Commentary Magazine


RE: Standing on the Sidelines of History

Rick’s characterization of the Obama posture on the Middle East is regrettably apt. American news media are dutifully reporting on the UN sanctions against Qaddafi and Hillary Clinton’s trip to Geneva, which we now hear has produced a promise of EU sanctions as well. But sanctions have never yet dislodged a brutal dictator, and they are not particularly meaningful to the problem at hand in Libya. As long as Qaddafi remains in the country, he will continue killing civilians in whatever quantities necessary to restore his control. A disorderly transfer of power could be equally sanguinary.

The nations of the EU are starting to take action. France is reportedly dispatching a humanitarian airlift to bring medical and other aid to the opposition group in Benghazi. Britain’s David Cameron, speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, referred to the possibility of arming the Libyan opposition as well as enforcing a no-fly zone. Italy has suspended its friendship treaty with Libya, paving the way for supporting no-fly zone enforcement from Italian territory.

Perhaps we should read into these events the galvanizing effect of President Obama’s phone call with Angela Merkel on Saturday. Meanwhile, the news Monday morning is that the USS Enterprise is being moved from the Red Sea back into the Mediterranean in case it is needed to assist in a response to the Libyan crisis. About this, too, the administration is somewhere between cryptic and behindhand: the Defense Department spokesman explained that U.S. forces might provide humanitarian relief, but nothing has been decided yet, and the State Department “has not yet made a request to the military.”

Thirteen days into what has become a civil war in Libya, the president should not be waiting for the State Department to make requests. We are past that stage in the Libyan crisis. The administration’s official patter is out of sync with the current conditions: whatever inter-agency process Obama has going, it should by now be producing a deliberate, unified national message, not departmental alibis.

Bloggers and the mainstream media are reading into the various developments — sanctions, ship movements, discussion of a no-fly zone — the prospect that Team Obama will catch up, at some point, to where Americans sense it should be. But mechanistic activities won’t achieve that goal. The world should not have to divine America’s intentions from oracles and signs. Indeed, deploying force as if it were an announcement of policy is a particularly bad practice. What’s missing is leadership regarding the meaning of the crisis — its meaning to the Libyan people, to the rolling back of dictators and the spread of democracy — and an articulation of how that meaning animates the actions of the United States.

In one sense, Rick’s “sidelines” metaphor is sadly ironic. The players on the bench occupy the sidelines, but so do the coach and his staff. No one is mistaking Team Obama for the latter.