President Obama remains lost on Libya, able only to articulate his desire to work through the fabled “international community.” Absent real leadership, his administration is falling back on the instinct displayed in each domestic and foreign crisis it has faced: deliberate interminably while substituting government process for real action.
Despite the all-purpose Obama administration mantra that “all options remain on the table,” Jay Carney, the president’s spokesman, said on Monday that “I think that it would be premature to send a bunch of weapons to a post office box in eastern Libya.” Thus spokesman Carney, who presumably is not empowered to make national security policy, all but ruled out helping rebel freedom fighters with intelligence, humanitarian assistance and military aid—steps that would make a difference without incurring an open-ended U.S. military commitment.
Carney’s statement implies that the U.S. government is flying blind on Libya, unable even to liaise with rebels concentrated in the east. This raises serious questions about his boss’s leadership capabilities.
If, despite spending $80 billion a year on its intelligence community, the U.S. government is unable if called upon to identify, understand, contact and support the best of the Libyan freedom fighters, then President Obama is failing to manage the national security apparatus.
Meanwhile, encouraged by Mr. Obama’s oft-stated affection for the U.N., a NATO bureaucrat declared on Saturday that U.N. “authorization” would be required prior to any NATO action. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the NATO secretary general, also said he would prefer any steps be carried out in coordination with the Arab League and African Union. Anyone else?
Notwithstanding that Mr. Rasmussen does not possess the authority to make such major policy decisions, which in NATO rests with the North Atlantic Council and the alliance’s member states, he has thankfully made clear to everyone outside the White House that NATO is unlikely to be useful with Libya or any of the other major threats the free world faces today.
The same is true of anything else that requires U.N. consent. The primary utility of the U.N. today is to constrain American power and freedom of action. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is that U.N. action requires the approval of the Chinese and Russian governments. They unfortunately place the goal of impeding the U.S. and the freedoms for which we stand above most other foreign priorities. The U.N. is also one of the world’s chief exponents of corruption.
Back at the White House all of this apparently matters little. As with other crises, the priority is on going through the motions of response—of process instead of action that could impact the situation on the ground. It just so happens that this time around, the best way to do nothing while appearing to do something means invoking the U.N.
A similar emphasis of process over results occurred just after Mr. Obama entered the White House, when an urgent request for a modest number of additional troops arrived from our field commander in Afghanistan. This was met with three months of contemplation and meetings, followed by a splitting of the difference, rather than decisive action.
This repeated itself in June of 2009, when pro-democracy forces in Iran presented an opportunity to neutralize one of the chief purveyors of evil in today’s world: the Iranian regime. Establishing a pattern, Mr. Obama did nothing to help, but held numerous meetings and declared appallingly that “I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs.”
The president had a prolonged repeat performance for three months last year, when millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico was apparently an occasion not for presidential leadership and getting resources to those able to produce a solution, but for interminable process and blame shifting. Louisiana Governor Jindal wrote of Mr. Obama’s performance: “Political posturing [became] more important than reality.”
Last but not least, in lieu of action, there is the most recent series of ‘open mic nights’ from the Obama administration, which began on January 25 when Secretary of State Clinton declared the collapsing regime of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to be “stable.” The series of amateurish statements from the president and his aides as the Middle East undergoes the most significant change since decolonization continues with no end in sight.
This pattern has negative consequences for national security.
In Libya, rebels could beat Qaddafi on their own, but the situation could also deteriorate into a stalemate, or a divided state, parts of which host Islamists and their terrorist vanguard.
In Iran, the democratic opposition might topple the Tehran regime on its own, but the government may in the meantime obtain a nuclear weapons capability, dominate the Middle East and export Islamism far abroad. An effective commander in chief would not leave these risks and opportunities entirely to chance or the U.N. He would take steps to shape the situation on the ground to the benefit of our national security.
Furthermore, inaction is not neutral. It does not escape notice in foreign capitals—especially adversarial ones like Tehran and Beijing—that the U.S., as led by President Obama, is weak, supine, and willing to act only after a lengthy process that now involves getting a permission slip from the U.N. We can delude ourselves that this diffidence somehow helps U.S. security by winning yet-to-be defined friends in the “international community.” But our adversaries know better and are no more scared of the U.N. or NATO than they are of President Obama’s love of process.
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).