I have been as critical as anyone of the administration’s finger-in-the-wind, “Mubarak is a dictator, Mubarak is not a dictator” policy during the last two months. In the case of Libya, Obama has seemed almost Shakespearean in his public musings about whether to be or not to be. In general, from the very beginning of the unrest in Tunisia, the United States has appeared erratic, inconsistent, and contradictory, often pontificating and talking loudly while carrying a tiny stick. It also apparently has no clue that Iran, Libya, and Syria are different sorts of autocracies from a dictatorial Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, or the Gulf states.
That said, however, we should not take too seriously the sudden European chest-thumping about jumping in to support Libya. The British government has a tawdry record of cynicism in its money-making diplomacy with Qaddafi the last few years. The Italians cozied up to him for gas and oil, and the French and Germans will sell anything to anyone at any time. No European government will back up any of their ongoing humanitarian rhetoric with force; they will launch no Euro air sorties from Spain, southern France, Malta, Italy, or Crete to stop Qaddafi’s use of airspace to put down the rebels.
After all, the present U.S. policy of non-interference is exactly the sort of soft-power contemplation that the Europeans for the last decade have clamored for in an American administration. Secretary Clinton’s and President Obama’s emphases on the primacy of the U.N., multilateral consensus, U.S. deference to the Arab League, the EU, NATO, etc., is European to the core.
All this is not to deny that Sarkozy et al. are shrewd. They hope to get out in front of the U.S. (and have) in terms of humanitarian concern for the Libyan rebels, without any concern for themselves: If we do nothing, they, not us, appear the custodians of Western values; if we do act, even better for them — France and Britain finally shamed the U.S. into action. Or, to put it another way, we take the risks, incur the costs and ill-will, and yet appear to be reacting to a more moral Europe’s far earlier and stronger hectoring.
Somehow this administration is slouching toward the worst of both worlds: moral ambiguity and an open-ended, messy sorta-involvement.