Published October 21, 2011
Obama Brandishes Another Scalp
“We’ve taken out al Qaeda leaders, and we’ve put them on the path to defeat. We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
-- President Obama’s triumphal Rose Garden remarks on the killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi.
When the government of Iraq hanged Saddam Hussein, a cell-phone video of the taunting of the condemned on the gallows caused international outrage.
Many Western nations and commentators opposed the very idea that Hussein would be tried and executed in Iraq – either on grounds that he should have been handed over to the International Criminal Court or that the death penalty was inappropriate, no matter how heinous his crimes.
But when the amateur video emerged shortly after the Dec. 30, 2006 hanging, it sparked a wave of indignation across Europe and the United States where foes of the Iraq invasion cited the incident as evidence of the moral bankruptcy of the cause. The press warned that Hussein’s treatment would cause serious problems on the “Arab street.”
The New York Times called the hanging “a sectarian free-for-all that had the effect, on the video recordings, of making Mr. Hussein, a mass murderer, appear dignified and restrained, and his executioners, representing Shiites who were his principal victims, seem like bullying street thugs.”
Officials in the Bush administration seemed to agree and within a few days the president himself would express his regrets, saying that the treatment of the prisoner “sent a mixed signal” and "looked like it was kind of a revenge killing."
Contrast that with the response to the far gorier scenes of the killing of Muammar al-Qaddafi.
The deposed Libyan dictator, driven from power by an eight-month air campaign by NATO, was trying to flee his last redoubt in a caravan of SUVs. After a French pilot and an American remote-controlled missile launcher blew the convoy to smithereens, Qaddafi’s bodyguards took him into a culvert. But fighters from the enemy tribes in revolt soon set upon Qaddafi and dragged his bloodied, but still-living body into the road spitting in his face and screaming insults as they beat him.
The still-living Qaddafi is seen begging for mercy just before he is apparently executed as the crowd ululates and fires its Kalashnikov rifles in the air.
Since Qaddafi died in the hands on his tormentors, his corpse went on a victory tour of the rebel tribe’s homeland, with its rapidly bloating face on display as a symbol of what may be the last thing on which the country’s now well-armed tribal militias could agree.
Islamist theocracy or secular democracy? Who knows. Friend of the West or another new ally for Iran? Can’t say. But one thing that transcends the young nation’s ancient tribal hatreds is a shared love of beating Qaddafi’s rotting body with shoes.
If these are the desert Jeffersons and Hamilton of which we have been told, it’s certainly no exaggeration when supporters of the U.S. war effort point out that there will be tough days ahead for the new government.
Power Play is no prude when it comes to this kind of rough stuff. Quaddafi was a perverted megalomaniac who held his nation hostage to his increasingly bizarre whims for two generations. Like Benito Mussolini, the last colonial ruler of Libya, Qaddafi earned no better treatment for himself from his subjects.
But it’s worth noting that the response has been, um, different than it was after the hanging of Hussein. The U.N. Human Rights boss has now said that the blood-soaked celebrations were “very disturbing,” but it was all fist pumping from the White House.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one of the architects of the effort to oust Qaddafi joked with a reporter about having just visited Libya that week saying, “We came, we saw, he died.”
President Obama gloried in the killing in a Rose Garden speech, talking about how the 618-day NATO operation to kill Qaddafi was a model for a new century of conflict and warning other Muslim leaders that they could be the next ones dragged out of a water pipe and spat upon.
If the goal was for an angry mob to kill Qaddafi in the street, why did it require $1.1 billion worth of American airstrikes and operational support over eight months? Surely we have cheaper ways of killing off cross-dressing dictators or small African nations, and ones that don’t involve having the French blow up so much of the nation we are now going to rebuild.
But the celebratory tone of the president and his secretary of state reflects the same attitude in his administration following the killing of Usama bin Laden in Pakistan and to a lesser degree the remote-controlled execution of American terror cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son in Yemen.
When asked on MSNBC last week if the nation’s ongoing economic travails and the president’s unpopular first-term agenda were evidence that Obama was not prepared for the job, the president’s top political adviser, David Axelrod, snapped back: "So when you say he wasn't prepared, maybe you should go ask Usama bin Laden if he thought he was prepared."
With the best case scenario on the economy increasingly looking like very modest growth for the next year with high unemployment and the lingering risk of a deeper downturn, the Obama administration and campaign have settled on a message of demonizing Republicans and arguing that Obama’s stimulus package prevented a depression -- even if it couldn’t prevent historically high long-term unemployment and the ongoing erosion of American incomes.
But that’s not going to feed the bulldog. “Could have been worse” is what you say after a wreck, not the way you argue for another turn at the wheel.
But the greatest area of political opportunity for any president is foreign policy. Unless he is facing a general, an incumbent president has a degree of experience on international affairs unattainable to anyone who hasn’t held that office. Obama may have known little when he took office, but has had three years of on-the-job training.
The Republican frontrunners are currently the former governor of Massachusetts and a former fast-food executive, neither of whom served in uniform. And while it may gall Republicans to hear Hillary Clinton mock Herman Cain’s willful ignorance about the leaders of foreign countries, team Obama is clearly not afraid to use the president’s status as commander in chief to remind Americans that he isn’t a softy.
Many Republicans believe that they are facing the second coming of Jimmy Carter, but that’s not the case. Obama looks more like Woodrow Wilson by the day – A professorial Democrat who merges liberal domestic policies at home with an interventionist foreign policy abroad.
Republicans looking to get to Obama’s right on foreign policy will be able to complain that he is too much leading from behind, is a poor friend to Israel, misjudged the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and has failed to recognize future threats from China and Russia, but they won’t be able to call him a weakling. And for an electorate utterly exhausted by two decades of ever-escalating interventionist commitments abroad, even greater hawkishness will not be much of a selling point.
Listening to Republicans sound agreement on the goodness of the Libya conflict but complaining about the means by which it was achieved sounded like picayune hair-splitting.
Republicans had better be ready to sound credible on defense when Obama starts brandishing the scalps taken in his various kinetic military actions. It won’t be enough to win an election in which Americans still disapprove of his foreign policy, but it will be enough to prevent Republicans from calling him soft.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“However, this is only stage one. As you pointed out earlier, in Iraq, Afghanistan, what we learned is getting rid of the regime is stage one happen, and that's easy. We did it in three weeks in Iraq. It took eight months in Libya. We did it for 61 days in Afghanistan. We have seen it has taken half a decade or now a decade in Afghanistan to establish a replacement.
So I think it would be mistake if the president pretends that he can now proclaim mission accomplished as the Bush administration attempted. Stage one is the beginning. And the really hard part is getting regime that in the end is democratic, and from the American perspective is friendly to American interests.”