The upheaval in Egypt was a classic American foreign-policy dilemma. Pres. Hosni Mubarak was a relatively benign dictator — certainly not a force for liberal democracy in the Middle East and certainly guilty of some human-rights abuses, but also a source of stability, a longstanding ally of American interests, and an essential barrier between Israel and her enemies. The conflicting demands of America’s interest in regional stability and her democratic ideals were real. In this light, the Obama administration’s reservation and ambivalence — demanding non-violence but otherwise remaining noncommittal, monitoring the internal conflict as it unfolded — was understandable.
The upheaval in Libya is no dilemma. Moammar Gaddafi is a lunatic, a murderer, a feverish anti-Semite, and an enemy to America. He is bad for our interests and for human rights. His pursuit of nuclear weapons was halted only by his fear of American military intervention. His ideology, his political structure (Gaddafi rules over an impoverished territory of disparate tribes and vast oil resources for the exclusive benefit of his quarreling and crazed family), and even his personality are all sources of instability in the Middle East.
As such, America’s response to the protests in Libya and Gaddafi’s violence against demonstrators has been cowardly and inadequate.
Since the protests began, Americans have seen horrifying pictures of the mutilated and dead — who now reputedly number more than 1,000. We have read reports of helicopters training machine-gun fire on demonstrators and even on funeral-goers — and Gaddafi has made credible threats to do much worse.
The Obama administration’s response has been milquetoast. From the president we have heard, literally, radio silence. Last week he issued a boilerplate written statement that condemned violence — not exactly a bold position — but did not specify how the U.S. would respond to such violence. Obama has not spoken publicly about Libya — at all. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her spokesman P. J. Crowley have issued equally bland, trite, and non-committal statements and tweets calling for non-violence.
Gaddafi’s first appearance on state television since the protests began was appropriately bizarre — a surreal 20-second spot in which he sat in a car under an umbrella to prove he was in Libya. His second appearance was an hour-plus rant, with vague promises of “new committees,” and many, many disturbing threats. He promised to “cleanse Libya, house by house,” and to “fight until the last drop of blood.” He declared, “We challenge America with its mighty power, we challenge even the superpower.”
And Obama remained silent. Even many representatives of Gaddafi’s own regime — at least his diplomats, who are at a safe distance — have resigned and had much, much harsher words. Members of Libya’s mission to the U.N. on Monday called for the overthrow of the “tyrant of Muammar Gaddafi.” They issued a statement requesting a no-fly zone over Libya. Gaddafi “is trying to kill as much as he can,” Ibrahim Dabbashi warned. And Obama remained silent.
Three days ago, there were credible reports that Gaddafi would order military planes to raze Benghazi — the western Libyan city in which protests have been most successful. Two days ago, two Libyan jet pilots landed their planes in Malta and testified that they had been so ordered and had refused.
Due to Gaddafi’s successful media blackout, there is little certainty about what exactly has been happening within the Gaddafi regime. But what information we do have suggests that were it not for substantial and improbable defections in multiple levels of the Libyan military, Benghazi by now might have replaced Tiananmen Square as a byword for anti-democratic atrocities.
President Obama prides himself on his power with words and his moral leadership. Why can’t he bring them to bear against one of the world’s most heinous and anti-American tyrants?