Let’s not judge Obama’s response to Libya too harshly … yet

Let’s not judge Obama’s response to Libya too harshly … yet

It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.

So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism — long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.

I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.

The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.

The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.

As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.