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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 03/ 7/2011

Foreign policy braggadocio on Libya and AIDS

By Glenn Kessler

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

"We have already engineered the most rapid and forceful set of sanctions [against Libya] that have ever been applied internationally."
--President Obama, March 3, 2011

If Republican cuts are approved, "we will be cutting back on our support for global health; in particular, support through the PEPFAR project, which was started by President Bush, which has been continued and very strongly supported by President Obama. Hundreds of thousands of people will be cut off of their life-sustaining drugs. Others will never have access to them."
--Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, March 2, 2011

There is an understandable need among politicians to exaggerate, not only about their achievements but also the problems that the nation faces. Exaggeration makes the issue seem a little more urgent, or the accomplishment just that much better.

 Last week, in separate appearances, both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pushed the envelope on foreign-policy issues in subtle yet distinct ways. To the casual ear, their comments may have seemed correct or perfectly reasonable. Let's look closely at what they said -- and why they said it.

 The Facts

The Obama administration has been criticized as not acting quickly to condemn the brutal response by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to an uprising against his four decades in power. The White House said later that it acted cautiously out of fear that Americans would be taken hostage by the Gaddafi regime. The administration's rhetoric sharpened after most Americans in Libya had left.

It was in that context that Obama, during a news conference Thursday, wanted to claim that U.S. efforts had yielded "the most rapid and forceful set of sanctions that have ever been applied internationally." He added that American leadership, which included freezing $30 billion in Libyan assets, had spurred "broad-based mobilization around the international community."

The problem is Obama's sweeping claim of the "most rapid" set of sanctions in history. The uprising began on Feb. 15, and on February 26 the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved Resolution 1970, which imposed travel bans on key officials, froze assets and referred Gaddafi and other members of his government to the International Criminal Court.

 That's 11 days. By contrast, after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, the UNSC passed Resolution 660 condemning it the very same day. It then followed up four days later with sweeping sanctions against Iraq, including a broad import ban. So, in that case, the response was quicker and arguably tougher.

 A White House official counters that the situation with Iraq concerned an invasion of a country, whereas Libya involved an uprising. Obama, however, did not make that distinction.

 Edward C. Luck, a U.N. historian and an adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, said that the Libyan resolution is unusual because it was unanimous, unlike the only other time the council cited a country's "responsibility to protect" its population. (That was the 2006 resolution on Sudan's Darfur region, which passed with three abstentions and came three years after the conflict started.) He said the Libyan sanctions were not as sweeping as the Iraq-Kuwait resolution, but he believes they were in many ways better targeted.

 In other words, the Libyan resolution is certainly worth bragging about, but to single it out as the "most rapid and forceful" in history is going too far.

 Clinton spoke about PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, during a congressional hearing in which she warned against cuts in the House Republican spending bill for the rest of the fiscal year. Her statement is certainly alarming: "Hundreds of thousands of people will be cut off of their life-sustaining drugs. Others will never have access to them."  

Clinton's language -- "will be cut off"-- left the impression that some of the 3.2 million people currently on antiviral drugs would lose access to them. If true, that would be headline news, since AIDS groups had privately said that people currently on the drugs would not lose their access.

 A State Department official tried to argue that Clinton's language referred to 400,000 people who are expected to get onto a drug regimen but who would be turned away after the spending cuts. Nice try. Clinton clearly is referring to that 400,000 in her next sentence, when she says "others will never have access to them."

 The Pinocchio Test

 In both these cases, there was little reason for either Obama or Clinton to pump up the facts. The Libya resolution is impressive enough without having to claim it was history-making. The potential loss of AIDS drugs to people who would need them in the future is alarming enough, and images of people "cut off" from their current drugs do not need to be invented.

 Neither of these comments merit much more than a Pinocchio. But, over time, such statements begin to erode a person's credibility.

One Pinocchio

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By Glenn Kessler  | March 7, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Other Foreign Policy  
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Have we not learned our lesson from the follies in Afghanistan and Iraq? Why are people so eager to get involved in another quagmire, this time in a civil war in a North African country in which we have no strategic national interest, which will cost more US lives and treasure? As brutal and unappealing as Quaddafi is, we have no idea who the leadership of the opposition are, so why side with them?

We have to stop this mindset that everything that happens in the world is our business, or that we must act as policemen for it. The situation in Libya has become a civil war. No one there has asked us to intervene; in fact, they have requested that we butt out. So let's. The best we should do is coordinate international sanctions and freeze all Libyan assets, including tracking down Quaddafi's personal bank accounts and seizing his families properties in England and elsewhere. Make it so he can't pay his foreign mercenaries. Then stop there and let that country -- and their neighbors -- settle it. I hope Obama will continue to resist pressure to intervene in a way we can ill-afford. Let's save our money to pay for programs that Congress is trying to cut to the bone here.

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Posted by: chicgoods | March 7, 2011 7:22 AM | Report abuse

Obama, Clinton, and Facts NEVER belong in the same sentence. Unless you're talking about Reverend Wright, the Midwest Academy, Charlie Trie, or Vince Foster.

Posted by: wewinyoulose1 | March 7, 2011 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Glenn, Thanks for calling out the Obama Administration for its pompous bragging style. The calling out is well deserved & your warning very necessary for the safety & well-being of the rest of us.

Posted by: TonyRozycki | March 7, 2011 8:21 AM | Report abuse

Obama says anything fed into the Teleprompter.

Posted by: JAH3 | March 7, 2011 8:45 AM | Report abuse

"But, over time, such statements begin to erode a person's credibility."

The statements are factually false. Their credibility has already eroded and corroded.

Posted by: kitchendragon50 | March 7, 2011 9:01 AM | Report abuse

Please explain to the American people why there's no money for classrooms but there's money for Libya.

Posted by: asja | March 7, 2011 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The fact checker isn't comparing apples to apples. In one case, an invasion of one sovereign country by another. In the other case, brutal use of force in putting down an uprising or rebellion. Comparisons to Rwanda, Sudan, Burma or others would be more apt.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | March 7, 2011 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I'm with FairlingtonBlade, this is a weak analysis. First, he wasn't saying it was the strongest "in history." He was talking specifically about US sanctions against Libya as compared to sanctions by other nations and international bodies against Libya; when you read his full remarks, that becomes apparent.

Even if you're hinging the analysis on the use of the word "ever," it's still pretty weak. He was giving a response to a question from the press. While the general spirit of the response was undoubtedly prepared in advance, I think it's pretty safe to say that at least part of the wording was off the cuff and slipping the word "ever" in there doesn't carry as much weight as you think it does.

If this had been from a prepared speech, it would be one thing. Considering that it was from a joint presser with President Calderon of Mexico, I must say I find that half of the post a bit lacking. It would have made more sense to compare the US's response to that of the EU and various EU nations that have imposed sanctions or issued warnings or whatever, rather than jumping on one lone word that was uttered in a semi-impromptu fashion.

Posted by: dkp01 | March 7, 2011 10:58 AM | Report abuse

To say the U.S. was responsible for these sanctions from the UN is a bit of a stretch in itself.

Posted by: Hawaiian_Gecko | March 7, 2011 11:41 AM | Report abuse

IMPEACH-CONVICT-DEPORT! And 'chute Madame Secretary into delightful downtown Zawiya! (Helluva way to get a date...)

Posted by: phvr38 | March 7, 2011 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Well, whatever the Obameh Administration is doing, it sure is working given the headlines in today's Post. (Those sanctions surely have Krazy Kadaffy on the ropes, though.

Posted by: CubsFan | March 7, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

"In other words, the Libyan resolution is certainly worth bragging about, but to single it out as the "most rapid and forceful" in history is going too far...
Neither of these comments merit much more than a Pinocchio. But, over time, such statements begin to erode a person's credibility."

Glenn it seems like your arguing just to argue

Posted by: doesntmatter | March 7, 2011 1:35 PM | Report abuse

So,when will no military service himself,
Commander in Chief Barack Hussein Obama and
his equally clueless incompetents Sec of
State Hillary Clinton and Sec of Defense
Dismal Failure Robert Gates and Democrat
Has Been CIA Director Leon Panetta wake up
and wise up and realize that the US Military has nothing left to effectively
respond to the current crisis in Libya or
anywhere else? And,the same goes for our
pathetic useless US Congress and the likes
of Democrat Senator Swift Boat John Kerry
and RINO Amnesty John McCain et all!

Posted by: Ralphinphnx | March 7, 2011 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Thr Democrats of today are only socialist,connected with the musalem islamist Obama this country shouldn't believe anything this administration says. Obama the Chief LIAR in the Adm. Relied on communist czars for all situations. Yhat's wht this country's in the shape it's in. Impeach Obama and fire the czars to turn this countery around.

Posted by: Danniepk | March 7, 2011 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Well worth repeating:
Please explain to the American people why there's no money for classrooms but there's money for Libya.
(but the repub logic is that "there is money to be made from a Libya invasion---think Halliburton, KGB, etc. while those kiddies in classrooms...well they should remain down and dumb so they can be used without too many questions and help make the rich richer.)

Posted by: Sherry91 | March 7, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

There is a world of difference between libya this situation and Iraq, which Bush created. Here the people are acting in their own interests, not the US deciding to attack a nation on its own to right what a President saw as his father's incomplete resolution of issues in the past. What is left of the "government" in Libya is now killing its own population to stay in power. The US, and other nations need to create a no fly zone, go after tanks, and other such weapons, and most importantly, put no troops on the ground.

Posted by: ATC444 | March 7, 2011 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Can't you all see the vast right wing conspiracy. The Tea-Party has kid-napped the fact checker. Bush knew! The Washington Post has been taken over by Karl Rove.

Posted by: Herbert1 | March 7, 2011 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Kessler, today's public is cynical enough without resorting to modest, 1-pinocchio exaggerations.

Posted by: timesup1 | March 7, 2011 3:11 PM | Report abuse

What business is it of the USA, NATO or anybody else's to interfere in Libya's internal affairs. The USA should just keep its nose out of the affairs of all other nations.

Now we have fools like John Kerry demanding that the USA "crater" Libyan airfield runways. This is nothing more than calling for a blatant act of war against a sovereign nation that is no threat to the USA - in other words, if the USA does this, it will be committing another war crime to add to the litany of war crimes it has already committed.

Let the Libyans sort out their own mess. The USA should just sit back and butt out. We don't see the Chinese or Russians making noises about Libya, because they are smart and know how to mind their own business.

But the Americans are idiots and that's why they are enmeshed in two unwinnable and very costly wars and are itching for more by trying to provoke Iran and now Libya as well.

How dumb are these people?

Posted by: ziggyzap | March 7, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Yes, this situation is entirely different from Iraq, where a U.S. invasion was predicated on a false pretext, and in any case (even had the pretextual claim of WMD been true), legal justification for war was still lacking.

Nevertheless, it would still be a huge mistake to intervene militarily in Libya. Such intervention would feed the regime propaganda, and undermine the legitimate opposition forces already in rebellion against Gaddafi.

The United States government has no more right to choose Libya's leaders, and use force (that is to say, kill people) to have our way about it, than it did to invade Iraq, for the purpose of unseating a leader we did not like in that country.

Posted by: Iconoblaster | March 7, 2011 3:30 PM | Report abuse

What President Obama should have said to Glenn Kessler and any other armchair generals is it is none of our business what is happening in Libya. For those who wish to make it our business, I am willing to supply them with our latest assault weapons, parachutes and any number of old cargo planes.
Further, as Commander In Chief, my so called COWARDICE is mirrored in my hesitation to expose American lives to help those who in a few weeks we maybe fighting against, or in the very least guarding against new terrorists created by our helping those who were fighting against Qaddafai.
My opinion as the writer of this little note is Mr. Kessler's only duty in life for which he earns a living is to criticize the president's decision not knowing a twit about what is going on with information he is sharing with other heads of state and incoming intelligence information the president receives. Mr Kessler wouldn't have a job if he did not have President Obama to criticize and second guess...Now there!

Posted by: october30 | March 7, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

I try to Report abuse but all I get is error messages. WaPo has one of the poorest comment sections of any major news source. Lots of ad hominem attacks from both sides, spam, and trolls/flame bait. WaPo you need to enforce your own 'rules'.

And by the way this article is a real stretch. This is what you think is important? The article itself is a set up for a flame war.

Posted by: NucSubVet | March 7, 2011 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Distort the, they just lie.

Impeach Obama.

Posted by: JCM-51 | March 7, 2011 11:10 PM | Report abuse

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