The Libyan regime’s declaration of a ceasefire only hours after the United Nations authorized the use of military force against the regime demonstrates what real leadership and the threat of force can achieve.
Unfortunately, this leadership, I regret to say, did not come from President Obama and the United States: It came from Britain, France, the Arab League, and Libya’s renegade ambassador, Ibrahim Dabbash, all of whom have been pleading with the United Nations to act.
To be sure, the Obama administration deserves credit for belatedly agreeing to support a no-fly zone in Libya — and not just a no-fly zone: The new United Nations resolution also authorizes “all necessary measures… to protect civilians and civilian populated areas, including Benghazi, while excluding an occupation force.”
So, finally and belatedly, the door has been opened to effect regime change in Libya. (The language about “excluding an occupation force” is troubling. Still, the resolution seems to allow for the use of allied ground forces or special forces, which, in all likelihood, will be integral to success.)
There’s only one problem: It’s not at all clear that President Obama supports forcibly removing Gaddafi from power. He and his foreign policy team have sent decidedly mixed and conflicting messages about their objectives.
This is a real concern because we don’t know whether Gaddafi’s cease-fire is a ruse or delaying tactic designed to buy him time and space, or a genuine acknowledgement that his position as dictator is untenable.
On March 3, Obama said that Gaddafi “needs to step down from power and leave.” However, at least so far, Obama has done nothing, really, to ensure that that happens. He has not been leading; he has been following — and that’s the problem.
There is, after all, a democratic revolution underway in the Middle East and North Africa. The people there are rising up against corrupt autocracies and demanding greater personal and political autonomy.
As the world’s greatest and most influential democracy, the United States has an inherent interest in supporting and promoting democratic change, preferably by peaceful means, but by force if necessary. This because democracies tend overwhelmingly to be more peaceful, less threatening and more economically dynamic.
Thus it should be the announced policy of the United States government to support worldwide democratization — prudently and incrementally, of course, but deliberately and decisively nonetheless. But that requires an overarching strategic vision which is conspicuously absent in this White House.
Consequently, Obama has been weak and indecisive when he should be bold and audacious. He has fiddled and dithered when he should be planning and acting. He has responded belatedly and unsurely to events rather than proactively shaping the strategic landscape.
And thus far, it must be admitted, this mostly has worked for Obama: He’s been lucky. The Egyptian revolution, for instance succeeded in spite of his weakness, not because of it.
Libya, moreover, seems at last to have turned a decisive corner — though I hasten to add that it is far too early to tell for sure. Libya may turn out well or badly; we just don’t know yet. Success or failure will depend on whether Obama finally can summon the requisite leadership on the world stage at a time of great uncertainty and confusion.
One thing, though, is clear: Without American leadership, democratization in Egypt and Libya, the Middle East and North Africa, is at a decided disadvantage. The risk is that Iranian and Islamist influence and money will hijack their democracy movements and turn the Arab and Islamic spring into a cold and austere winter.
This would be a strategic disaster for the United States. Thus we have a clear and unequivocal vital national interest in checking Iranian and Islamist influence and promoting democratic change and transformation.
Yet sadly and not surprisingly, the man who campaigned on “hope and change” has been coldly indifferent to the opportunity to effect real hope and change in the one place where it is most needed: the Middle East and North Africa.
As Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post,
We are at a key juncture. As in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, the dysfunction of the Middle East today generates the most threatening challenges to the international community.
The largely peaceful, youth-oriented, democratic revolutions across the region present an opportunity to catalyze a fundamental transformation. Partnering with other responsible actors, we should take reasonable steps to facilitate and consolidate this shift in the Middle East.
As befits a former diplomat, Khalilzad understates both the challenge and the opportunity that now confronts Obama and the West. The challenge is the unraveling of the old and corrupt autocratic order in the Middle East and North Africa. The opportunity is to replace that corrupt order with something much better, more modern and more in accordance with vital American security interests.
Unfortunately, we have as president a man seemingly blind to the historical significance of the events now unfolding. Indeed, Obama has been dragged by leaders and events outside of his control to a place he’d rather not be: to a revolutionary moment that cries out for American leadership.
“The nation that I’m most interested in building is our own,” said Obama at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. That was Obama’s excuse for announcing a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. But as our president is discovering, American can’t withdraw from history. The winds of historical change are too strong for any nation, even the United States, to withstand.
America can either shape history or be shaped by history. Obama seems to prefer the latter course of inaction; but it is resolute action that he must take — in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. Now.