Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Perhaps it is time to judge Obama’s response to Libya

Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today’s press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to ...

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today's press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.

I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:

Perhaps the Gaddafi regime is blocking the evacuation of U.S. citizens so as to intimidate the White House into making only muted statements -- and this intimidation is working (note to President Obama, this is closer to what real hostage-taking feels like). Or perhaps the administration is paralyzed with indecision because of debates between internal factions, some wanting a stronger Bush-like response and others wanting to stick with the Obama 2009 approach that guided the weak response to the Iranian post-election protests in June 2009.

Up until now, I have been inclined to give the White House the benefit of the doubt for the Middle East message difficulties that they have been having. But they are stretching that doubt almost to the breaking point. Today’s press briefing by White House Spokesman Jay Carney was excruciating. He clearly had nothing to say about Libya and was determined not to say it.

I am not expecting the White House spokesman to make policy from the podium, but I did expect the White House to be further ahead of the curve today than they were yesterday or the day before, thus giving Carney more material to work with. I can think of only two plausible explanations for the weak White House response thus far:

  • Perhaps the Gaddafi regime is blocking the evacuation of U.S. citizens so as to intimidate the White House into making only muted statements — and this intimidation is working (note to President Obama, this is closer to what real hostage-taking feels like).
  • Or perhaps the administration is paralyzed with indecision because of debates between internal factions, some wanting a stronger Bush-like response and others wanting to stick with the Obama 2009 approach that guided the weak response to the Iranian post-election protests in June 2009.

Either explanation is plausible or perhaps both are in play. If the first explanation is the correct one, I think the White House’s stance is understandable but exceedingly risky. Making concessions to virtual hostage-takers only makes sense as a temporary tactic in a larger strategy that quickly turns to a more forceful intervention. (By the way, if the hostage scenario is correct, the issue of U.N. authorization before military force is moot. It still may not make sense to escalate immediately to military action, but President Obama would have a substantially freer hand in terms of what options would be legitimate). If the second explanation is correct, this is an important test of the president’s mettle. He needs to decide the matter and establish a clear policy … and soon.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.