If there was need for further proof that the international arena is not Obama’s favorite playground — then came the attack on Libya by NATO forces, demonstrating the extent to which the White House has had a hard time finding the appropriate path in its policy on cardinal international and security issues.
The administration — and the management of the first phases of the Libyan crisis will testify to this — would prefer to keep a low profile and avoid military involvement. Escalation of the conflict may undermine the relative stability of the energy market and cause the soaring of oil prices (which could severely harm the American economy). Taking a belligerent posture against a Muslim country was also perceived as seemingly contradictory to Washington’s aspiration to reach out to the Muslim world. A hard line might have pushed Gadhafi to resume his engaging in global terror — and in this way, draw the American nation back to the Bush era, the heritage of which Obama has sought to sever. Moreover, the administration’s agenda is fixed on aspects outside the security sphere. Entanglement in the Libyan desert (about 150,000 American soldiers are already stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan) will make it difficult for the administration to concentrate on a web of social and economic objectives.
In this light, it’s not surprising that the president persisted in keeping quiet for more than a week after Gadhafi first began slaughtering his people. What is surprising is the U-turn the administration made in the course of the last few days. This turnaround is all the more puzzling in view of the fact that the president went on treating indulgently — if not indifferently — other foci of unrest (Yemen and Bahrain), where the regimes also employ violence against demonstrators and forces of reform.
Lessons of the past, undoubtedly in the minds of “all the Obama people,” indicate also that bombings from the air and from the sea are not a magic formula capable of bringing about the defeat of the forces of evil. This should have put them on alert regarding the limitations of the emerging strategy. Indeed, in the spring of 1999, NATO corps operating in Kosovo needed no less than 78 consecutive days of concentrated bombardments until Milosevic capitulated.
In spite of this, we’re witnessing a sudden about-face of the American position. Although it’s tough to identify today any signs of enthusiasm in the American capital after the Rubicon was crossed, the reason for the change of mind is two-fold and illustrates just once again how hard it is for the American Gulliver to find the proper balance between diverse values and goals he has set before himself. At the end of the day, the fact that Gadhafi’s regime has turned into a leprous one in the eyes of most of the Arab world (and also for the Arab League, which began to express reservations yesterday about the scope of the military action), tipped the scales for the American government. It signaled to the administration that an army operation against Libya would be carried out in a “safe space” of international and inter-Arab legitimization.
Since within his political thought all of the president’s actions in the foreign arena were supposed to be conducted in the framework of a multilateral casing, the Arab desire to settle the bill with Gadhafi overcame his caution against messing up militarily. And so, while on the Bahraini stage — where force is also being used against protesters, — Obama has remained silent (despite the fact that key allies such as Saudi Arabia are involved directly in the suppression of the riots), things are different on the Libyan battlefield.
In other words, the dosage of violence the regime applies against its opponents, as well as the range of regional resistance against the oppressive rule, have become the main criteria for action by the Obama administration. This while abandoning the drives of reform in other epicenters of the Middle East, including Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.
No fundamental basic values, including the right to life and the right to expression of opinion, are therefore put in the focus of the government’s thinking, but rather, it is the degree of public support (both domestic and foreign) consolidating around them in a local context. In other contexts, these lofty principles are being trampled on crudely by the administration’s partners along this strategic trajectory— with no real response from the side of the superpower boss. Time will tell whether leaning on a broad regional consensus as a major cornerstone for action will come to fruition — even in a purely diplomatic frame of reference — also on the Palestinian scene.