Entry from March 17, 2011

It is natural for those of us who have always opposed President Obama’s left-wing domestic agenda to think of his foreign policy as also having been inspired by the quasi-pacifism of the left. Carterism — which is Wilsonianism without the guts — has been something close to the default position for Democrats since the last of the Scoop Jackson variety left the scene. Jimmy Carter, like his fellow Southern Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, liked to preach the doctrine of idealism and democracy in international relations, and he seems to have thought that calling on other, less moral nations than ourselves to emulate us in our respect for “human rights” amounted to a foreign policy. President Obama appears to think the same. Thus, when the Iranians rose up in revolt in 2009, he assured them that they were “on the right side of history” and did nothing. Now that the Libyans are revolting, he says that “Gaddafi must go” and, again, does nothing, in spite of today’s hints from Susan Rice that “we need to be prepared to contemplate steps that include but perhaps go beyond a no-fly zone.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of action, you might think. But what if the administration’s dithering isn’t a character flaw but a deliberate policy — rather like Old Grandet in Balzac’s novel whose stutter was deliberately adopted to put off his business rivals in negotiations? The first conservative to raise this possibility seems to be David Frum in today’s Daily Telegraph, who sees a sinister motive behind it and even a preference that Gaddifi should be successful in putting down the rebellion.

Would President Obama prefer a Gaddafi victory? If that sounds implausible, then just look at the record. On March 3, Obama announced that Gaddafi “must go”. Two weeks have passed since then — and more than a month since the uprising began on February 15. In the interim, the tide of war has turned in Gaddafi”s favour. Yet Obama has done nothing to make his own words reality.

I would like to think there is a hint of Swiftian irony in that opening paragraph. Since it is plainly inconceivable that our moralist-in-chief should be rooting for such an evil man to remain in power by murdering even more of his innocent, democracy-loving people than he already has, the raising of this absurd possibility casts an even harsher light on his indecision and irresolution and even cowardice.

But Mr Frum appears to mean it. Like Ross Douthat in Monday’s New York Times he cites a study purporting to show that “on a per capita basis … twice as many foreign fighters came to Iraq from Libya — and specifically eastern Libya — than from any other country in the Arabic- speaking world. Libyans were apparently more fired up to travel to Iraq to kill Americans than anyone else in the Middle East. And 84.1 per cent [74] of the 88 Libyan fighters … who listed their hometowns came from either Benghazi or Darnah in Libya”s east.” Maybe there’s a good reason, besides cowardice and irresolution, for the American president to stay his hand from the natural liberal impulse to assist the remnants of the rebel force in in Benghazi, even if they are fighting a monster. This is not Mr Frum’s view, mind you. But he thinks it might be President Obama’s, particularly if the latter is primarily motivated by a determination not to make the same mistake (as he sees it) his predecessor did in invading Iraq. As a result, “Libya is Obama’s Iraq in reverse. The fighting may end faster when the dictator survives. But the consequences may reveal themselves as no less ugly, no less large, and no less enduring.”

I have my doubts. Just as it makes no sense to attribute to malevolence what can be as easily explained by incompetence, so weakness seems to me a more likely explanation for President Obama’s inaction than the sort of Machiavellian cunning David Frum suggests. Consider his inaction in Iran two years ago. What possible outcome to the revolution there could have been worse than the current régime? Yet he did nothing then either, and allowed the green shoots of democracy to be rooted up and burned. It might well have taken no more than a light shove to topple the Iranian régime, and what succeeded it was hardly likely to have produced yet another Islamicist sponsor of international terrorism. Though we cannot be so sure what would succeed Colonel Gaddafi, military involvement of any kind seems to me to be what our congenitally irresolute President is afraid of.

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