Obama on Libya: Very little and very late
After days of near-silence and inactivity the Obama administration took its first tentative steps against the murderous regime of Moammar Gaddafi. The Post reported:
Moments after a charter aircraft departed Libya with all remaining U.S. diplomats there Friday, the Obama administration shuttered the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli and moved to freeze assets in this country belonging to leader Moammar Gaddafi, his family and his government.
In an executive order issued Friday night, President Obama accused Gaddafi and his government of taking "extreme measures against the people of Libya, including by using weapons of war, mercenaries and wanton violence against unarmed civilians." The order blocking the transfer or withdrawal of any funds applies to all Libyan government entities, Gaddafi and all of his estimated eight children, specifically naming three sons and a daughter.
White House officials said Obama also canceled all military contacts with Libya and ordered a reallocation of U.S. intelligence assets to focus on civilian deaths there and to track Libyan troop deployments and tank movements.
Obama did manage to call for Gaddafi to leave Libya. But oddly, he did so in a phone call -- with Angela Merkel "after days of deadly violence and criticism that Washington was slow to respond":
Obama, in a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Gaddafi had lost his legitimacy and needed to go.
"The president stated that when a leader's only means of staying in power is to use mass violence against his own people, he has lost the legitimacy to rule and needs to do what is right for his country by leaving now," the White House said in a statement describing the call.
"The president and the chancellor shared deep concerns about the Libyan government's continued violation of human rights and brutalization of its people."
I would be hard-pressed to find a more effective means of diminishing the impact of that message than haivng the novice press secretary relate what Obama said to another world leader. The American president (like our influence in the world) is shrinking before our eyes.
House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen responded with a statement:
"The executive order freezing the assets of Libyan regime officials and blocking defense-related exports to Libya is a positive first step, but stronger penalties must be imposed in order to hold the regime accountable for its heinous crimes, and to prevent further violence against the Libyan people.
Additional U.S. and international measures should include the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone, a comprehensive arms embargo, a travel ban on regime officials, immediate suspension of all contracts and assistance which benefit the regime, and the imposition of restrictions on foreign investment in Libya, including in Libya's oil sector.
Furthermore, the resolution on Libya which the U.N. Human Rights Council passed yesterday was an overdue, reactive, and insufficient measure by a deeply flawed body whose membership remains dominated by human rights violators, including Libya itself. How many innocent people had to be killed or imprisoned by the Gaddafi regime before the Human Rights Council would finally act?
I urge the U.S. to call for a vote in the U.N. General Assembly to immediately suspend Libya's membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council. I also call on the Administration to end U.S. participation in and funding for the Council until real membership standards are adopted to prevent human rights violators like Libya from becoming members in the first place."
But the slowness of the Obama response and the mildness of its initial steps are revealing, as Christopher Hitchens put it:
This is not merely a matter of the synchronizing of announcements. The Obama administration also behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland. We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus. And, just as there is something despicable about the way in which Swiss bankers change horses, so there is something contemptible about the way in which Washington has been affecting -- and perhaps helping to bring about -- American impotence. Except that, whereas at least the Swiss have the excuse of cynicism, American policy manages to be both cynical and naive.
On the other side are apologists such as the Center for American Progress's Brian Katulis (who shamelessly assured the crowd in Herzliya, Israel, this month that American influence in the Middle East was on the rise). He sniffs at the administration's critics: "He is after all the president of the United States, not the president of Amnesty International." Unfortunately, he's not acting like either, and certainly not leading the West.
The Obama team and its spinners have excused the timidity on grounds that it had to rescue Americans in Libya. Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Institute thinks that calculus sends exactly the wrong message. He e-mails me: "The sizable number of Brits, French, Italians and Germans in Libya (and their substantial economic interests) did not render their leaders mute as violence broke out. It was only the United States that chose to dither. Thus we are left looking silly and weak. Not a good message to others that may wish to cause harm to Americans in the future."
Likewise, a Middle East hand who's been highly critical of the administration's handling of recent Middle East events tells me, "The message should not be that we are shivering in fear but that if you touch an American you are a dead man. Once upon a time our message to Tripoli was Teddy Roosevelt's: "Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead." That is the language someone like Gaddafi understands."
But, alas, Obama does not. Nor does he seem to comprehend that when America waivers or recedes from its historic role as leader of the Free World, both the world and the U.S. suffer.
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