Obama has gone Awol, just when it matters most

The Times, March 26th, 2011

The fecklessness of President Obama threatens the core international relationship — the Western alliance — on which the freedom and prosperity of the postwar world has been built. The crisis is coming to a head in the maelstrom of Libya.

Obama’s election in 2008 was widely welcomed around the world. Adulation — not too strong a word — was widespread, particularly in large sections of the media. But more and more politicians and commentators are suffering buyers’ remorse.
Yesterday Peggy Noonan, the Wall Street Journal’s star columnist and a former Reagan speechwriter, who had supported Obama in 2008, dissed him. “No one, really, sees President Obama as the kind of leader you’d follow over the top. ‘This way, men!’ ‘No, I think I’ll stay in my trench’ ... He seems incompetent and out of his depth in foreign and military affairs.”
Noonan is not alone in her thoughts. Incredulity is spreading wide amongst both America’s allies and its enemies.
As soon as Obama came into office he made clear that he believed far more in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the Arab League than in America’s unique role in the world.
And he seemed to believe more in his own personal history as a force for change than in the strength of American alliances and friendships. Foes were treated much better. These attitudes have not led to striking foreign policy successes.
As the uprising of large sections of the Libyan people against their 40-year dictator grew, Obama dithered. Eventually he was pushed by some of his own advisers, and by the apparent determination of France and Britain, into seeking a UN resolution to try to protect at least the rebel headquarters of Benghazi from Gaddaffi’s promise to exterminate them.
But ever since the operation started, Obama has been like the Duke of Plaza Toro, leading the operation from behind and insisting that the US drop its traditional leadership role just as soon as possible. He created a vacuum and, in the absence of America, the centre has not held.
The Arab League, which is basically the trade union of the region’s dictators, supported the no-fly zone at the UN. But it has since begun to backslide. China and Russia have denounced the operation ever more harshly; so now has Brazil, despite the fact that Obama was there on a visit just as he sent US forces into action.
There have been leaks that David Cameron was frustrated at his inability to reach Obama, who seemed almost to be hiding from serious discussions with his allies as he insisted America must now step back.
Britain and France, who led the call for intervention, found themselves at loggerheads over whether or not Nato or some other ad hoc entity should step into the US leadership role that Obama was abandoning. Germany fled the scene.
Now a form of Nato control over the Libyan operation has been established but with Turkey apparently having the last word on targeting. Is that such a good idea? It was only a few months ago that Turkey’s Prime Minister accepted the Gaddafi Prize for Human Rights. All of this is said to be “Nato-esque”.
Obama and his supporters lost no chance to denounce President Bush for his allegedly unilateral decision-making in defiance of Congress. Indeed yesterday, a senior BBC Washington correspondent talked absurdly of the US having practised “gunboat diplomacy” before Obama.
But Obama is showing far greater contempt of both Congress and the American public than Bush ever did. He did not consult Congress before taking military action and, even more extraordinary, he still has not explained his actions to the American people.
There are good reasons for doing what we have done — our belated intervention has clearly prevented a bloodbath in Benghazi and other rebel areas. The world’s inability to intervene swiftly in both Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s led to myriad deaths in both crises. That is something which haunts Bill Clinton and perhaps his wife as well.
But our action is controversial, complex and needs explaining. Cameron has done his best, addressing Parliament more than once.
Obama, by contrast, did not consult Congress before taking military action and even more extraordinary, he still has not explained his actions to the American people. He just does not want to be associated with this policy, either at home or abroad. Why not? If, as the White House insists, the goal is humanitarian relief not regime change, why not proclaim that proudly? But Obama keeps quiet.
Here is a White House spokesman yesterday: “We’re clarifying, we’ve said repeatedly, that the effort of our military operation is not regime change, as we actually say . . . it’s the Libyan people who are going to make their determinations about the future. We support their aspirations, their democratic aspirations, and have stated that Gaddafi should go because he’s lost their confidence.”
Well, that’s all right then.
Obama did say earlier this week that America should be only “one of the partners among many” in the Libyan venture. It is quite right to make the Europeans pull their weight.
But the US as “one among many” is not how the Western alliance has succeeded since 1945. The alliance’s strength has been built around strong, confident American leaders who, above all, believed in their country.
Jimmy Carter was the first postwar President to waiver — and he failed. Now Obama seems to be an even weaker reed and to be totally unable to give leadership. This could not be happening


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