Washington’s inability to act decisively when foreign developments pose great risk and opportunity is again on prominent display. Reprising the philosophy of his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” President Obama has used the uprising in Libya to ride to the rescue of the corrupt and anti-American United Nations, rather than provide practical assistance to Libyan democrats. For their part, Beltway Republicans have done no better.
After no fewer than 10 days of protests in Libya, it took Mr. Obama until last Saturday to finally get around to taking the side of pro-democracy forces and against the dictator—the first time he has done so in the series of uprisings during his presidency.
But subsequent steps taken cannot feasibly help pro-democracy rebels in a relevant timeframe. Instead, President Obama appears to be indulging his instinctive dislike of American influence abroad.
The centerpiece of the White House response has been a U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting arms sales to Libya. But this cannot possibly help rebels in the near term, when their fate is likely to be decided. Furthermore the governments that supply arms to regimes like Qaddafi’s ignore U.N. resolutions without consequence.
Instead what is likely at work is a doubling down, to use Obama parlance, on the administration’s new plan to subsume U.S. security beneath the U.N.
Last month, before the Libya crisis began, Mr. Obama’s ambassador the U.N., Susan Rice, began travelling the country defending the international organization saying that “Now more than ever, we need common responses to global problems.”
Given her positions, what that realistically means is turning U.S. security over to the U.N. and forcing the U.S. to act in the world only with a permission slip from the corrupt and repressive governments that dominate the U.N.
This also explains the president’s dispatch of Secretary of State Clinton to Geneva earlier this week to address the U.N. Human Rights Council. How a diplomatic gathering that includes dictatorships like China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba will provide any practical help to people fighting for freedom is left unexplained.
However, working through the Council is the opposite of working with fellow democracies that share our values, and is therefore virtuous to Mr. Obama and others on the left.
For their part, the Republican-leaning provinces of the Washington foreign policy establishment have done little better.
Some backed the idea of a no-fly zone over Libya. That would incur all of the downside of open-ended military intervention without dramatically shifting the strategic equation in favor of rebels. The idea was demolished on Wednesday by head of Central Command General James Mattis who cautioned that “[i]t wouldn’t simply be telling people not to fly airplanes” and would be “an extraordinarily complex operation to set up.” Defense Secretary Gates went even further, "Let's just call a spade a spade," he declared. "A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya."
Had the shadow-boxing Beltway Republicans -- who pitched the idea -- considered that our last no-fly zone in the Middle East—covering portions of Iraq from 1991-2003—consumed massive military resources while largely failing, they may not have needed a four-star general to tell them war is complex and might warrant slightly more consideration prior to seeking one.
Given this intellectual laziness and doctrinaire thinking, it is no wonder President Obama has had little trouble accomplishing such recent foreign policy feats as rounding up 71 Senate votes for a sweetheart treaty (aka New START) that handed Russia a strategic advantage for nothing in return. Pro-democracy protestors around the world who hope for American leadership never had a chance.
What could the U.S. do instead? Realistically, the success or failure of the Libyan revolution falls in the middle area between something that matters little to U.S. national security and something that poses so much risk or opportunity as to warrant the immediate use of force. It calls for action given the potential benefits of toppling Qaddafi, but does not necessitate or justify going to war.
Instead, the U.S could wage political warfare in Libya and elsewhere, which involves using largely non-violent means to pressure regimes we loathe without combat.
In the example of Libya, political warfare could partially include creating an “open window” of communications tools and content so free Libyans can reach those still under Qaddafi’s control, and dissuade those still on his side. Like all dictators, Qaddafi tries to restrict and distort information to preserve his rule. Information can provide repressed people with hope and democracy activists with tools to lead movements. This can be as simple as using civilian and military assets to provide radio, satellite and internet communications that are independent of the mechanisms the regime can control.
Successful political warfare also requires being clear about what you are for and what you are against. Across the Middle East, we should work overtly and covertly to undermine Islamists and empower democrats.
To do this effectively, the White House or Congress would have to pass over several Washington bureaucracies.
Our $80-billion-a-year intelligence community failed to predict these revolutions or even detect the massive number of Middle Easterners who favor democracy and have taken to the streets to seek it. The titular head of the intelligence community, James Clapper, did not even know the people in Egypt who helped invent modern Islamism were Islamist.
Similarly, NGOs funded by Congress to advance freedom, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, excel more today at balancing teacups than helping frontline dissidents. New civilian tools can be fielded—ideally with Americans of Middle Eastern descent at the lead.
As a nation, the United States should demonstrate that we have the confidence and moral courage to lead and not be afraid to espouse American freedom. -- This is another essential part of political warfare. Even as we talk, out of necessity, with tyrannical governments, like Iran and China, we should make clear that we favor their replacement. In this, we would be following Ronald Reagan’s example with the Soviet Union.
Last but not least, we should not fear acting unilaterally or only in conjunction with our close democratic allies. That is far more likely to advance U.S. security than anything pursued through the corrupt, ineffective United Nations.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).