There are no more excuses. The Obama administration has chosen to analyze and consult rather than lead. Opposition forces once knocking on the door of Tripoli are fighting for their lives after being pushed back to their remaining stronghold in Benghazi.
It should not have come to this. After Tunisia in December and Egypt in January, the administration cannot say it was caught off guard by developments in Libya. A full month since brave revolutionaries stood up to challenge eccentric dictator Muammar Qaddafi, and two weeks since President Obama declared that Qaddafi had lost legitimacy and must go, the Obama administration still has no defined objectives or plan of action. The administration hasn’t even extended recognition to the opposition National Council, who at the moment is the only organized political alternative to Qaddafi. Even the French have taken this minimal step.
Long ago the administration should have extended diplomatic recognition to the opposition and taken real action to ensure its ability to survive. There were many missed options short of an Iraq style invasion or even a no-fly zone.
• Communications capabilities could have been enhanced to ensure the opposition’s ability to communicate internally and internationally. The fact that to date most of the world has no idea who the opposition is, of itself, is testament to the cost of avoiding this relatively inexpensive, non-military action.
• A limited no-fly zone covering Benghazi should have been established. If the US and allies lack the will or military capability to impose a no-fly zone covering all of Libya, the US should have at least encouraged others to step up to support a more limited no-fly zone. This would have helped ensure the opposition capital had reliable lifelines to survive (food, information, and weapons).
• Arms transfers from Eastern European allies should have been encouraged. If the U.S. and Western allies lacked the will to supply the opposition, and if the opposition sought to avoid a U.S. footprint, the way should have been paved to allow those in Eastern Europe -- who know what it means to struggle for freedom and throw off dictatorship -- to help arm the Libyan revolution.
Instead, what has the Obama administration done? Sent Secretary Clinton to the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Passed U.N. Security Council sanctions that do nothing to help the opposition in the near term. And worse, passed a U.N. arms embargo that the State Department spokesman interpreted incorrectly as making provision of arms to the opposition a violation of “international law.”
And at this late date, is the administration finally prepared to take action to halt Qaddafi’s advance against the opposition? The answer is still no. Our U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice is at center stage--not the president or a full Cabinet member--seeking a new U.N. Security Council resolution. Russia and China already have expressed doubts about the resolution and the Obama administration says it will not act without Security Council authorization. This must really warm the spirits of those daring to stay and fight in Benghazi.
Endless delay without any meaningful action to assist the opposition is inexcusable at this point.
None of this makes sense, unless you consider Team Obama’s self-created caricature of President Bush’s folly in Iraq – rushing in without exhausting all alternatives, preparing for all contingencies, securing Security Council authorization and broad international participation. The administration puts forth a false choice between alleged Bush administration haste and unilateralism and the thoughtful and cool (but unending) deliberation and diplomacy of the Obama administration.
The problem is that there is a yawning gap between the straw man critique of Bush and Obama’s hands off approach. Unfortunately, the Obama administration fails to appreciate that inaction has profoundly dangerous consequences too.
A Qaddafi victory and American impotence risk leaving Qaddafi free to resume nuclear programs, support terrorism, and use petroleum as a strategic weapon.
Beyond Libya, autocrats around the world will watch profound American weakness and assume they can continue, with impunity, almost any action the U.S. declares to be "unacceptable.”
Those seeking freedom in autocratic countries will watch with horror, seeing that they too may stand alone if they dare challenge their oppressors as the Libyans have. Islamist terrorists are also drawing conclusions about US resolve and leadership.
We can only hope that the revolutionaries in Benghazi will prove more resilient than can be reasonably expected, allowing time to restore faith and credibility in America as liberty’s last best hope in the world.
Stephen Yates is president of DC International Advisory and former Deputy Assistant to the Vice President of the United States for National Security Affairs (2001-2005).