The Best Policy

Last Chance for Libya

President Obama has hours, not days, to save the revolution in Libya and across the Arab world.

Libya revolution
How much longer can Libyan opposition forces hold against Qaddafi?

Well, we finally got a no-fly zone, but it is over the nuclear plants in Japan, not over Libyan air space.

As of this writing, the forces of Muammar Qaddafi are proceeding in both western and eastern Libya to retake the cities along the Mediterranean that had joined in the uprising that began on Feb. 15. Momentum has shifted dramatically, with Qaddafi’s forces in rapid ascent, and the beleaguered troops of the opposition begging for support—a no-fly zone, arms, logistical support, food, humanitarian aid. Anything! An opposition that was at one point on the verge of toppling Qaddafi has been pushed back hard on its heels, limited to a great extent to the city of Benghazi. Just as with Hungarian freedom fighters in 1956, having been called to the cause of freedom and promised help, they are now abandoned. Qaddafi’s military, on the other hand, is now emboldened by the failure of any international military support for the opposition.

Time is of the essence, as the possibility that the opposition forces will be entirely defeated becomes more real every day, and the efficacy of a no-fly zone, or any other military support, becomes more uncertain, and surely more costly in military terms.

The Arab League has passed a resolution supporting a no-fly zone. The French—the French—have recognized the opposition government as the legitimate government of Libya and have spoken in favor of military action in support of the opposition. England is supportive of a no-fly zone.

Yet the United States waits. And waits. Repeatedly President Obama has stated that Qaddafi has lost his legitimacy, and that he must go. President Obama did not reject intervention on the basis that sovereignty was inviolate, or that Libya was not a vital interest, or that civil war did not provide a basis for our intervention. Just the contrary; he has repeatedly stated that Qaddafi must go, and has put the credibility of his presidency behind the notion that Qaddafi will depart. Yet President Obama also states that we need international support for intervention. And he has defined that international support as a United Nations Security Council resolution. Nothing else will suffice. Not NATO, not the Arab League. Even Wednesday, Secretary of State Clinton reiterated that a United Nations resolution was necessary. We are hostage to the United Nations Security Council and the threat of Russian and Chinese vetoes. We have made our foreign policy dependent on the Russians and Chinese.

At risk is the very revolution for freedom in North Africa and the Middle East. Our failure to act decisively in support of freedom has emboldened those who would justify the use of force to repress freedom. Indeed, had the United States assisted the Libyan opposition forces and remained steadfast in support of the forces of freedom throughout the Middle East, it is highly doubtful that Saudi Arabia would have been willing to send troops into Bahrain to help repress the nascent freedom movement there. Having witnessed the reality that we were not willing to provide any support to Libyan opposition forces, the Saudis realized we could hardly oppose their foray into Bahrain.

There is another risk for the president. His failure to bring rhetoric and action into alignment is becoming a metaphor for his entire presidency. In too many cases, his inspirational rhetoric has not been matched by a gusto for the action and tough leadership that many think necessary. Whether on the issue of the extension of the Bush tax cuts or intervention in support of the Libyan opposition, the gap between flowing words and inaction is getting more difficult to tolerate. The mode he seems to prefer—waiting for a consensus to form and then joining it—might be fine in many situations. But such a style is ill-suited to a decision about intervention to support those seeking to throw off the yoke of an autocratic leader.