According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, as President Obama and his advisers measured their response to the mass killing in Libya, they were mindful of the fact that diplomats in Tripoli had told them, in the words of one official, that “certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens.”
“Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism,” he continued. “But when you’re sitting in government and you’re told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that’s a line you don’t feel very comfortable crossing.”
The Obama administration’s position assumes that Muammar Qaddafi needs a pretext to kill Americans. He actually doesn’t. He has done so in the past, and he could just as easily do so now, regardless of what kind of “messaging” emerges from our government.
Beyond that, as Christopher Hitchens points out, the leaders of nations far less powerful than the United States, many with large expatriate populations in Libya, took much more forceful (and much earlier) stances against Qaddafi than did Obama. The president was the last major Western leader to speak up on Libya.
On a more fundamental level, what the Obama administration did was create quite a dangerous precedent. It has now signaled to the most malevolent regimes in the world that the way to delay (or perhaps even avoid) American condemnation, let alone American action, is to threaten the lives of American citizens. The message sent to, and surely the message received by, despots around the world is this: If you want to neuter America, threaten to harm its citizens. Mr. Obama will bend like red-hot steel pulled from a furnace.
There were, of course, other options available to the president, including informing Mr. Qaddafi through the appropriate channels that a terrible fate would await him and his pack of jackals if a single American was harmed (see here). The president did very nearly the opposite. He showed weakness, irresolution, fear. I wonder if people have focused on just how troubling this action, and the mindset it manifests, really is.
Sidney Hook once said that those who make survival the supreme value are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. Professor Hook’s statement could be amended and updated: American presidents who declare that they will bow to the demands of dictators who threaten American citizens are declaring that there is nothing they will not betray. For those who were disturbed by President Obama’s diffidence in the face of Qaddafi’s wickedness, it’s worse than you think. The ramifications of Mr. Obama’s actions will outlive whatever happens in Tripoli.