Obama and Libya: The man's a moron

If the Founding Fathers could see Obama now

The President's reluctance to act over Libya signals a new worrying direction for the United States, says Janet Daley.

Libya: Barack Obama says all civilian attacks must stop
The United States, Mr Obama said, could not 'stand idly by' while Col Gaddafi was likely to 'commit mass murder' Photo: AP

So the West got it together in the end. By the time you read this, it may be clearer whether that happened at five minutes to midnight or five minutes past. If the latter – if it proves to be too late for the people of Libya – then the blame will lie almost entirely at the door of the Obama administration. After weeks of dithering and mixed signals (remember that jibe from the US Defence Secretary about David Cameron’s “loose talk”?) punctuated by periods of impenetrable silence, the White House had a sudden epiphany and declared itself in favour of a UN resolution allowing much more than a no-fly zone.

The word from Washington is that Hillary Clinton was behind this conversion: Barack Obama had joked publicly about the pressure that the Secretary of State was putting on him to overcome his reservations – which seemed to revolve primarily around his reluctance to bear any resemblance to his predecessor in the run-up to what is clearly going to be a difficult election. But the history of this ignominious chapter in American foreign policy is already being re-written in Washington with an enthusiastic chorus of support from Obama fans here: on Friday, Labour backbenchers and the BBC were already suggesting that all this apparent floundering was actually part of a superbly clever strategy. America had deliberately refrained from taking the lead on Libya, thus allowing “space” for the Arab nations and the UN to “take their proper place” as the authors of any intervention policy. Contrary to appearances then, Mr Obama is not out of his depth. Neither is he a cynic who secretly wants to keep Gaddafi in power for the sake of a quiet life (sometimes known as “stability in the region”) while he struggles with Congress over his tricky domestic programme. In other words, they were only pretending to be useless: it may have looked like a collapse of moral leadership to you but it really went completely according to plan.

Even if we take this wildly charitable interpretation at face value, what does it say about the role that America is choosing to adopt on the global stage? That in future we can expect it to follow rather than lead? That it has abdicated its role as defender and standard bearer for the principle of freedom – the idea that all men are born with inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, which the great founding documents of the United States declare to be universal and not simply the birthright of residents of one nation? If America is now to make its commitment to those values conditional – even when the oppressed populations of totalitarian countries are putting their lives at risk to embrace them – then we are living in a very different world from the one to which we have been accustomed. And this is a far, far bigger leap than is assumed by the champions of “international law” and multinational bodies who are happy to see America take a back seat – at least until the ammunition starts to fly.

Oddly enough, of course, many of the same people who attacked American “neo-imperialist” actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been condemning it for its inaction and indecision in Libya. This is partly just the reliable old anti-American reflex (the US is always wrong, part 192) but it is also a genuine awakening to what a post-American world would actually be like. The experience of the two world wars and of the Cold War have accustomed us to the expectation that the US will always stand up for freedom and democracy, and stand by those who fight for it, even when that stance offers no immediate prospect of anything but great danger and sacrifice. This was not an incidental fact about the country’s nature: it was inherent in its identity. The concept of “American exceptionalism” was coined by De Toqueville, who believed that the facts of America’s origin made it fundamentally different from the old European cultures from which it sprang: this was a country created on first principles which were consciously embraced by all those who chose to live there.

Those principles necessarily implied that freedom was the ideal condition of human life and that democracy was the best protector of that condition – and the moral duty of America in the world followed from that. Mr Obama has given serious and consistent indications that he wishes to withdraw America from that historical function – to wilfully abdicate its traditional responsibility – and this not just on the grounds of pragmatic isolationism with which America has experimented before (only to repent later). In a major keynote speech in Eastern Europe in his first year in office, he said in so many words that the new Europe was going to have to learn to fend for itself. Some of those American missiles were going to be withdrawn and the commitment to protection would become less watertight. Now that the Cold War was ended, America had its own problems to deal with – and to spend money on.

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