Friday, February 25, 2011

Reflections on Obama’s Libya Statement

Obama finally said something about the carnage in Libya on Wednesday. The usual neocon suspects weren’t the only ones complaining that it was more than a day late and a dollar short. Here, for example, are the editors of the Washington Post (my emphasis):
“Governments around the world have been condemning [Gaddafi’s] appalling stance and the terrible slaughter it has caused. The European Union has agreed in principle to impose sanctions, and the Arab League has said Libya will be excluded from its meetings. British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi all condemned the regime's violence. Said French President Nicolas Sarkozy: ‘The continuing brutal and bloody crackdown against the Libyan civilian population is revolting. The international community cannot remain a spectator to these massive violations of human rights.’

“By late Wednesday only one major Western leader had failed to speak up on Libya: Barack Obama. . . . Shouldn't the president of the United States be first to oppose the depravities of a tyrant such as Mr. Gaddafi? Apparently this one doesn't think so.”
Although it was too polite to say it bluntly, the Post was adding its voice to the neocon choir complaining about yet another “failure of presidential leadership.” That’s a misleading formulation, however, insofar as it suggests that Obama has somehow fallen short of his own standards, that he’s trying, unsuccessfully, to do something that he aspires to do. When you look at what Obama actually said, that’s pretty clearly not the case.

We’ve been listening to Obama long enough by now to be acquainted with his rhetorical mannerisms. We know, for instance, that his way of telling us that his administration is on top of things is not to announce an unequivocal decision, but to assure us that he’s presiding over a crackerjack decision-making process. So it was utterly in character for Obama to try last Wednesday to inspire confidence by informing us that he’s instructed his national security team “to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis, [including] . . . those actions we may take and those we will coordinate with our allies and partners, or those that we’ll carry out through multilateral institutions.” Where others see inexcusable indecision, he evidently sees intellectual mastery of the complexity of foreign affairs.

We’ve also caught on to the fact that Obama’s favorite way of disapproving of other people’s conduct is to call it “unacceptable.” Wednesday he threw in another adjective to signal the depth of his disapproval: “The suffering and bloodshed [in Libya],” he insisted, “is outrageous and unacceptable.” Yet we should know by now that his calling something unacceptable implies no determination on his part to keep it from happening. In Obama-speak, “unacceptable” means something more like “lamentable” than “intolerable.”

Finally, we’ve gotten used to Obama’s prefacing the money paragraph of a speech with the expression “let me be clear.” In Wednesday’s speech, he dusted off that expression once again to signal that, unlike Sarkozy, he's perfectly happy to remain a spectator of events in Libya for the foreseeable future. You could be excused for coming away with the idea that, in Obama’s view, the ineffectuality of his own preferences is less a bug, than a feature of his Libya policy:
“So let me be clear. The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.”
If you take Obama at his word, you'll know that the last place he wants to be was out in front of world opinion respecting developments in Libya. Otherwise, he wouldn't have drawn attention to what the Post regarded as the deplorable tardiness of his remarks (my emphasis):
Yesterday a unanimous U.N. Security Council sent a clear message that it condemns the violence in Libya, supports accountability for the perpetrators, and stands with the Libyan people.

“This same message, by the way, has been delivered by the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and many individual nations. North and south, east and west, voices are being raised together to oppose suppression and support the rights of the Libyan people.”
There are worse ways of putting things in a nutshell than saying that the controlling maxim of Obama’s foreign policy is “less is more,” i.e., that the less visibly and insistently the administration advances its own foreign policy preferences, the more likely they are to be realized. Say what you will about the wisdom of that proposition, but we’ve passed the point where it’s reasonable to doubt that Obama embraces it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. You really summed up Obama and his presidency pretty well.

What continues to surprise me is that even though Newsweek and the Washington Post (still waiting for the NY Times) have called out Obama on his many recent failures of leadership, and absence of foreign policy, liberals continue to think he is the best thing going in 2012.

Is it time for Hillary to resign, ride in on a white horse and try to keep the presidency for the Democrats?