Foreign policy braggadocio on Libya and AIDS
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 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
| March 7, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: 1 Pinocchio, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Other Foreign Policy
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