The American silence

In a few days or weeks, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, a true moral monster, will be overthrown by his own people.  His fate will then parallel that of other tyrants who suddenly find themselves unemployed.  He may go the way of Mussolini, or he may end his days in a retired totalitarian’s home in Caracas or Havana.

Whatever the future brings to Qaddafi, his regime, or Libya, one thing appears certain:  the United States will have had no influence over the outcome.

In the midst of the most astonishing global upheaval since 1989, American foreign policy can best be characterized as an embarrassed silence.  We seem to have no official opinion about these transformational events, no interests we wish to protect, no outcomes we prefer.  President Obama rarely speaks, and when he does, he says nothing.  Secretary of State Clinton makes vague pleas for an end to violence – as if a resumption of the Qaddafi regime’s control over the population were devoutly to be desired.

Never in my long life have I witnessed anything like it.  I have seen presidents with bad foreign policies and good, who succeed or fail in their endeavors.  I have never seen a president with no foreign policy, whose approach to the world imitates the mute self-righteousness of a Trappist monk.

The case of Libya exemplifies this urge to quietude.  Unlike events in Egypt and Bahrain, where pro-American authoritarians were challenged by popular uprisings, Qaddafi’s current troubles don’t represent a conflict between our interests and our ideals.  He’s a bloody-minded egotist, a plague to his own people, a bomber of commercial airliners, a murderer of innocents, including Americans.  He loves us not at all – and we owe him nothing.

So why the vow of silence?  I have heard rumors in the media about a concern that the Libyans would take Americans hostage.  If true, this is naïve on many levels.  It assumes Qaddafi would strike at American citizens only in response to US actions, and not because, at a given moment, he considers this move to be in his best interest.  It also supposes Qaddafi will respond more favorably to silence and passivity than to a show of force.  Yet we have evidence to the contrary.  After President Reagan bombed Libya in 1986, Qaddafi pulled his head into his shell and didn’t pull it out again for years.

Another explanation whispered by the media is that we have no influence to bear on Qaddafi or Libya.  This is both hypocritical and false.  Hypocritical because where we did have influence – in Egypt, for example – we refused to apply it, and chose to wait on events instead.  False because, absent this administration’s reflexive twitch to look away and bite its tongue, a great power always has options.

After all, Peru – not a great power – broke relations with Libya three days ago.  Switzerland – tiny and neutral – froze Qaddafi’s assets two days ago.  These countries didn’t ask anyone’s permission, didn’t make excuses:  they acted.  Surely our own government can do as much.

We can state aloud our preferred outcome:  a democratic and peace-loving Libya.  We can say what we won’t tolerate:  the slaughter of the Libyan people by Qaddafi’s forces.  And we can warn, clearly and specifically, of the measures we will take if the intolerable occurs:  impose economic sanctions, say, or a no-fly zone with the Sixth Fleet – or take out Qaddafi’s armor and air force.  None of this will guarantee that events will flow in our direction.  What it will do is ensure that US interests and values are in play, and must be reckoned with by friends and foes in the region.

President Obama doesn’t confide his motives to me, but I doubt the explanations in the media account for the strange American silence.  The recipe for the president’s quiescent slouch in the Middle East, I’d guess, is one part perplexity, one part belief in the nefarious effect of US power, and eight parts indifference to the fate of the world.  He found the time and energy to chastise his political opponents in Madison, Wisconsin, but for days, while Qaddafi’s goons murdered protesters by the score, he looked the other way and kept mum.

Silence is a form of action.  It has consequences.  In Libya, as in Egypt, America’s unwillingness to defend its interests and values will be noted by all political forces currently contending for ascendancy.  Those who hate us and despise our way of life will feel emboldened.  Those who might have advocated liberal democracy will feel forsaken and betrayed.  The vast majority, fence-sitters all, will embrace with various degrees of sincerity whatever ideology fills the void left by our withdrawal.

This is unlikely to be kind or gentle.  It is, in my opinion, a fact of history that when America grows silent, freedom loses its voice.

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