Yemen’s security forces have killed more than three dozen protesters in the last few days. Qaddafi has announced that allied efforts to destroy his anti-missile defenses are a form of terrorism and as a consequence, he is prepared to decimate the rebels in Libya. It seems to me that it is time to ask a question that haunts the history of our time: Are there limits to dictatorial power?
Since the Holocaust, the international community has given lip service to the idea that mass murder by dictatorial leaders should never be tolerated. But in practice, it seems that the murder of one’s own people for the retention of power is permitted or at least ignored. In such cases, the argument against intervention is that we cannot possibly intervene whenever atrocities occur. Or perhaps more logically, that sovereignty trumps atrocity.
It is instructive that U.S. State Department officials employed the latter position for a time by suggesting we should not insinuate ourselves into a Libyan civil war. In other words, however bloody the attacks may have been and continue to be, there is not a justifiable role for the U.S. Needless to say, that position has been modified.
As I see it, the basic Obama foreign-policy thrust is aimed at an incremental U.S. withdrawal from regional influence. The withdrawal is both emotional — an unwillingness to defend our interests and our allies — and physical — a drawdown of troops based on the belief that we cannot afford these foreign ventures.
That strategic vision, or lack thereof, has created a situation in which our enemies believe we are ineffectual and our allies believe we are untrustworthy. Instead of hastening to carve out a defensive stance for the U.S., one that recognizes our foreign interests, the administration has decided to channel our foreign policy through the United Nations. In doing so, the leverage that emerged in the past from the assertion of national power is lost. We are at sea as one nation in an international armada that has lost its way.
America’s opting out of unilateral action has implications for nations with imperial goals. Iran has become the “strong horse” in the Middle East neighborhood by default.
Winston Churchill said that when democracies triumphed in World War II, they “were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.” It seems we are at it yet again. We watch with horror as power-hungry barbarians kill their own people, but we generally tolerate these actions. We are overcome by the magnitude of evil and the inversion of certitudes, but are helpless in their wake. We seek fresh creeds, but do not know how to deal with the revulsion in our collective gut. And all the while our leaders tell us this will pass and, after all, there is nothing we can do.
Is the world turning to savagery? Are we to allow shamefacedly the death and horror we have the capability to prevent? The derision of death lurks in our imagination, but the will to reverse it has not emerged. America cannot police the world, but the U.S. is still the only anchor that can assure international stability. That role must be recognized and given the attention history has placed on it.
— Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute and author of the book Decline and Revival in Higher Education (Transaction Publishers).