Friday, March 25, 2011

Obama Reverses Himself … Twice

I don’t usually agree with Nicholas Kristof , who recently extolled Barack Obama for his military intervention in Libya. However, this has been an unusual week. President Obama has reversed himself on two important issues, both involving foreign policy. On Libya, he rejected opinions from the so-called peace camp, and did the right thing in moving the US into an active role in establishing a no-fly zone and stopping the brutal slaughter being perpetrated by Colonel Qaddafi.

I have been critical of many aspects of Obama’s judgment regarding Libya. There was too long a period of dithering.(over three weeks)  before action was taken.  It would have been far better if the US had taken the lead, rather than leave it to the British and French.  And it would have e been preferable to look to Congress rather than the UN  to act on this. Many problems remain; there is no exit strategy, no commitment to regime change  (Qaddafi will likely remain in power), no clear objectives, There is much doubt in the American media, in Congress, and among ordinary citizens,  about the wisdom of this intervention, and many reasonable concerns are being expressed

However, it cannot be denied that a humanitarian catastrophe has been avoided. Our intent in  helping the Libyans who were being slaughtered by Qaddafi’s forces, and our actions that have helped to accomplish this, are far more important than these other concerns. So on the humanitarian issue, Obama finally acted, and deserves credit.

Kristof correctly points out that ” in Benghazi, the major city in eastern Libya whose streets would almost certainly be running with blood now if it weren’t for the American-led military intervention, residents held a “thank you rally.” They wanted to express gratitude to coalition forces for helping save their lives”.  
As Kristof has pointed out, this is one of the few times in history when outside forces have intervened militarily to save the lives of citizens from their government

Fouad Ajami , a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a winner 30 years ago of a MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called Genius award) , has published a thoughtful article in the Wall Street Journal, in which he refers to “Obama's Holbrooke Moment”. Richard  Holbrooke was the diplomat who convinced President Clinton that America should intervene in Bosnia.

Ajami points out that Obama did “the right thing, at last. The cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Help came as Moammar Qaddafi's loyalists were at the gates of the free city of Benghazi. There was no mystery in the fate that awaited them. The despot had pretty much said what he intended. He would hunt down those who had found the courage to stand up to him, show them no mercy and no pity”.

In Bosnia, the choice was between intervention and disaster; . President Clinton had dithered for over two years, resulting in the death of over 8000 Bosnians.  Once Holbrooke persuaded Clinton to intervene, American action easily turned the tide.

We have a similar situation in Libya. We cannot yet know the results of the intervention, but there is little question that creating a no-fly zone over northern Libya was the right thing to do for humanitarian reasons. .

There are differences from other rescue missions such as Kuwait and Bosnia  In Libya, Britain and France took the lead, and our commitment is far less than in those earlier episodes. President Obama came to office as the non-Bush. Unlike Bush, who intervened in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama was breaking with this legacy, and accepting the existing power arrangements in the Islamic world.

Obama’s opposition to war, his reaching out to Arab dictators, his failure to support opposition movements such as the one in Iran, all made him different from George W. Bush. It was this philosophy (a mistaken judgment in my opinion)  that garnered a Nobel peace prize, But as Ajami puts it, “It was history's odd timing: A great historical rupture in the Arab world, bearing within it the promise of remaking a flawed political tradition that knew no middle ground between despotism and nihilistic violence, happened on the watch of an American president proud of his deliberateness and his detachment from history's passions.

For the Libyans, there has been a thin line between catastrophe and deliverance. They have given it all, and now their liberty depends on whether the democracies believe that it is worth their while to give the cause of freedom a boost—to provide evidence that justice in the affairs of nations, though it has tarried, is not yet dead.”

This was not a one time fluke. Obama’s attitude to Iran has also undergone a sea change. When the Iranian people rose up in opposition to the current rulers two years ago, Obama gave them no support or  succor. It was a moment of disgrace, in which our administration failed to recognize the proper course of action.  

Samara Greenberg points out that “In 2009, Obama spoke directly to Iran's leaders, telling them he seeks engagement based on "mutual respect" and to pursue "constructive ties" between the two nations. And in 2010, while the president mentioned the Iranian regime's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators during the previous year, he continued to speak to the Iranian regime, saying that his "offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands."
In earlier times he spoke of Iran’s right to “peaceful nuclear energy”, a phony construct the Iranian leadership concocted to hide their real intention.
But this year. Obama has spoken directly to the Iranian people, stating “For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse.” He no longer speaks of engagement, and is now speaking of Iranian  brutality. Further, as described in a Wall Street Journal editorial, he is now willing to name actual dissidents in his annual Persian New Year address. ..Among others he referred to Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer jailed for “propaganda against the regime”, Jafar Panahi,  an internationally recognized filmmaker, imprisoned to keep him from making films, Mohammed Valian, a 20 year old street protestor, charged with acts against God,   who  at one time faced execution.
Major problems remain for America in dealing with Iran. We have learned from Libya that when a brutal regime will do anything to stay in power, outside help is needed.  So several critical questions remain. How will we deal with the Iranian  nuclear program? With abuses of human rights? How will we support a democratic opposition? While answers are not yet forthcoming, President Obama has shown a desire and an ability to deal with  the problems more appropriately.
Could this be the beginning of Obama establishing a legacy of doing things because they are right? These are not policies that can be characterized as liberal or conservative, but rather need to be judged on such grounds as history, morality, and human rights.  We will have to wait and see what happens over the next few months. But for now, President Obama has slowly backed into doing the right thing with respect to  Iran and Libya. For the sake of all of us, let us hope this continues.

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  1. Ah, a double-reverse

    He picked that up watching college ball lol

  2. You said "He did the right thing". That is insane. We have absolutely no business being involved in civil wars. Not to mention that we are bankrupt and that this is an action directed by the UN. The UN!

    Melrose, MA