Shadow Government

Did Obama make the right call in delaying action on Libya? It depends.

There is some confusion about the Obama administration’s explanation for why they did not take a more forceful stand on Libya earlier in the crisis. The talking points delivered by Ben Rhodes, the White House official responsible for communications in the foreign policy arena, and relayed in Sunday’s Washington Post emphasized administration concerns about the potential risk to American citizens. ...

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

There is some confusion about the Obama administration’s explanation for why they did not take a more forceful stand on Libya earlier in the crisis. The talking points delivered by Ben Rhodes, the White House official responsible for communications in the foreign policy arena, and relayed in Sunday’s Washington Post emphasized administration concerns about the potential risk to American citizens. Whether or not the administration made the right call depends, I think, on which citizens they were seeking to protect.

Many critics read this as a general reference to all of the American expats living in Libya. If this were the case, as my friend and former colleague Pete Wehner outlines, the administration’s position would be extraordinarily concessionary to Qaddafi and an ominous precedent for dealing with tyrants in the future. If the presence of any U.S. citizens in any country were enough to deter the United States from taking a clear stand, then the implications are deeply troubling. As Wehner argues, "The message sent to, and surely the message received by, despots around the world is this: If you want to neuter America, threaten to harm its citizens. Mr. Obama will bend like red-hot steel pulled from a furnace."

I read the administration’s explanation a bit differently. I believe what they were primarily worried about was the safety of the embassy personnel. After all, there are doubtless still U.S. citizens in Libya today and yet the administration has taken fairly tough action on the economic sanctions front and has started to say the things that they were deterred from saying a week ago. Apparently, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was uniquely vulnerable. According to the deputy Chief of Mission, the embassy lacked the customary security provided by U.S. Marines. With little or no protection from mob action, the embassy personnel were extraordinarily exposed. As bad as the situation in Libya is today, it would be far worse if Qaddafi had seized the embassy in an Iranian-hostage-type gambit. Perhaps the warnings that "certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens…" were a veiled reference to threats directed at the U.S. embassy. Given Qaddafi’s record of erratic behavior, I think an embassy hostage situation would have to be considered a realistic threat.

If the administration was simply worried about any potential harm to any American expat, then the critics’ case is more compelling. U.S. citizens are everywhere and such a doctrine — we will not speak out if U.S. citizens are in the country — is not sustainable. Indeed, if that were the original motivation, the administration did not forbear for long and has put those expats at risk with the economic sanctions and talk of military options. 

More plausibly, the administration was delaying certain actions until the embassy personnel could be evacuated. That strikes me as a tough but defensible call under the circumstances. It is tough because it still involves making concessions to virtual hostage takers, nevertheless defensible, because those concessions were only a temporary tactic.

This does not mean that the administration has gotten everything right on Libya. I hope someone presses the administration to explain why the embassy was so vulnerable, and why steps were not taken earlier to evacuate the personnel and thus restore our leverage sooner. And if the administration really wants to prove its critics wrong, it must exercise leadership on the Libyan file from here on out and avoid contradictory messaging.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University.  He is the director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

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