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Russell A. Berman
The roots of indecision: Obama and Libya
Haunted by past US foreign policies, Obama has not shown resolve in protecting Libyan civilians, scholar argues.
Last Modified: 07 Apr 2011 15:16
The Obama administration's showed confusion and hesitation when dealing with various Arab revolts [REUTERS]

The Obama administration has yet to find its footing amidst the political tremblings across the Middle East. And Washington's reactions have been inconsistent.

When the Green Movement called for democracy in Iran, Obama signalled to the Tehran leadership that he would stand aloof.

Yet when long-standing American ally Hosni Mubarak of Egypt faced demonstrations, Obama quickly called for him to resign. Servility toward enemies and abandonment of friends seems to be the watchword for American foreign policy: except of course with that old friend Saudi Arabia, whose invasion of Bahrain evoked no US protests.

Most egregiously, Obama delayed any decision regarding Libya until Gaddafi was on the verge of crushing his opponents. Confusion as far as the eye can see.

No wonder. Washington lacks much ability to grasp these political dynamics, in part because of the systematic degradation of intelligence capabilities that has been underway in the US since the post-Vietnam era.

One can genuinely take the US government at its word when it proclaims that it has very little insight into the identity of the Libyan rebels. The term "clueless" comes to mind.

Shooting in the dark

In part, however, Washington's lack of understanding is the price it must pay for decades of failure to educate sufficient numbers of scholars with regional expertise who could interpret these dramatic events.

An excessive reliance on the paradigms of the quantitative social sciences has prevented the state department and other government offices from acquiring much qualitative familiarity with the cultures, histories and languages at stake.

As a result, the Obama administration has to work with insufficient knowledge. It has had to scramble to try to get to know the players and their agenda.

Who are the authentic reformers in Iran? What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in post-Mubarak Egypt? Is there anyone to count on as a reliable successor to Gaddafi? Washington is flying without radar.

This knowledge deficiency is compounded by a domestic political problem. Obama has always strived to distinguish himself from his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his democracy agenda.

Bush''s robust defence of democracy as the birthright of all humanity and his willingness to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq remain an anathema to Obama and his political base, for which there are never any legitimate grounds to promote democracy through military intervention.

On the contrary, American-style democracy or more broadly, Western democracy is seen as a very specific and local cultural formation, at home in the countries bordering the North Atlantic, but with no particular validity elsewhere.

Hesitation

Since Western political values have no universality, the West therefore has no grounds to criticise repressive regimes in other parts of the world. This of course is nothing more than cultural relativism as foreign policy.

These two components insufficient knowledge and a relativistic anti-interventionism dovetail neatly. Together they magnify Obama''s personal predisposition to do little, to stay out of the fray, and to keep expectations as low as possible.

In addition, his reluctance to act decisively in Libya was reinforced by the reality of the US strategic situation, already committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, with neither promising any speedy resolution.

All this explains Obama's stunning delay with regard to Libya. As Gaddafi''s troops marched eastward, as Gaddafi and his son promised murder and mayhem, as loyalist troops and mercenaries slaughtered Libyan civilians, Obama showed himself to be as indecisive as Hamlet. Why could he not act?

Even when he called for Gaddafi to leave, he was not prepared to do anything to reach that goal. A sorry state indeed, when the president of the United States calls for the head of a sovereign state to depart, but does nothing to force him to leave.

Such confusion undermines the credibility of presidential power by reducing it to a matter of inconsequential speech acts, symptomatic of Obama's own socialisation in the academic world where words, not deeds, are what really count.

Eventually Obama did move from words to deeds, but it had taken a lot to motivate him. The prospect of being upstaged by England and France may have shamed him into action.

Haunted by the past

The surprising emergence of support from the Arab League probably played a role too, at least by providing some public-relations cover for this third American military incursion into a Muslim country. (Of course that Arab League support turned out to be mainly a mirage that faded away quickly, involving no significant military participation).

Yet the most important motivation to act was the prospect of a massacre in Benghazi. Gaddafi's troops were drawing nearer and, his intention to unleash a reign of terror was incontrovertible. It is sometimes said that armies always fight the last war: the strategic lessons from the past overshadow the conflicts of the present, often to detrimental effect.

In this case, the US was facing the memory of its last catastrophe. Some of Obama''s advisers were convinced that the Clinton administration's failure to act in Rwanda in 1994 had contributed to the slaughter of more than 800,000 Tutsis, which made the US complicit in that terrible genocide.

Close associates argued that Obama should not stand by passively but must instead actively prevent the imminent massacres of Libyan civilians. Rwanda, never again!

Obama was simultaneously haunted, in other words, by two spectres of the past. He did not want to repeat Bush's invasion of Iraq, but he was also persuaded that he should not repeat Clinton''s inaction in Rwanda.  His twin fears have been to act too much and to act too little.

To act or not to act

In the end, Obama chose to act, but with a conspicuous reluctance that has prevented him from projecting the image of a decisive leader. Instead he communicates a sense of ambiguity and half-heartedness that can never mobilise public support.

On the contrary, Obama's high-profile hesitation has attracted domestic opponents in curious alliances across the political spectrum.

Isolationists on the right find themselves in the unanticipated company of anti-war activists from the left in opposing the Libyan campaign.

Meanwhile human rights interventionists on the left are making common cause with neo-conservative advocates of the democracy agenda of the Bush years.

In supporting the US involvement in Libya, these interventionist and neo-cons complain that the president dithered too long and that he continues to refuse to take the steps necessary to win. For those steps would lead to directly to regime change, beyond the limits of the UN resolution.

Yet how can the US continue to limit its war goals to the protection of civilians, if the very civilians whom it is trying to protect are risking their lives for regime change? Should not the US pursue regime change too?

Setting the end of Gaddafi as an explicit goal, however, would require a firm sense of resolve, which Obama has so far lacked. Perhaps he will discover it yet.

The news that he has authorised CIA agents to assist the rebels certainly goes well beyond the protection of civilians authorised by the UN resolution, and it puts American boots on the ground, notwithstanding all denials.

This could be Obama's real moment of decision.

Russell Berman is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University, and an expert in international relations and terrorism. He is also the author of numerous books, including Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad (Hoover Institution, 2010).  

The views expressed in this article are the author''s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera''s editorial policy.

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