I am troubled by a word President Obama kept repeating in his recent statement on the Libyan uprising: “accountable.” The president said he intends to “hold the Qaddafi government accountable” for its atrocities. He said it again: “Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable.” He used the word four times in all.
This is not a new rhetorical device. In earlier remarks on Libya, the president made this sweeping generalization:
Like all governments, the Libyan government has a responsibility to refrain from violence, to allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need, and to respect the rights of its people. It must be held accountable for its failure to meet those responsibilities, and face the cost of continued violations of human rights.
“Accountable” is a deeply moral term – and, indeed, the president’s use of it is in the context of Qaddafi’s barbarities against his own people. But I would like to know what he means by it.
Webster’s International Dictionary defines “accountable” as “Subject to giving an account: answerable.” Answerable to whom? Webster’s provides a helpful example: “every sane man is accountable to his conscience for his behavior.” Muammar Qaddafi’s sanity is a topic of controversy these days – my take is that a lunatic rarely hangs on to power for 42 years – but his lack of a conscience is beyond dispute.
Asked about the violence in the country he rules, Qaddafi responded, “My people love me. They would die to protect me.” This is not a man who is going to hold himself accountable for his behavior.
Of course, there’s a simpler explanation. When the president of the United States asserts, “Colonel Qaddafi needs to step down from power and leave,” it’s reasonable to assume American power will make it so – that Qaddafi isn’t accountable to his own forgiving conscience, but to us.
Yet nothing in the president’s statement suggests the slightest exertion on our government’s part to help see Qaddafi off. When asked about US military intervention, the president spoke vaguely of contemplating the “full range of options” and having “full capacity to act” – but seemed to imply that any action would wait on the development of a humanitarian crisis, and on “consultation with the international community.”
President Obama does not sound like a man who will personally hold Qaddafi accountable.
A transgressor who won’t answer for himself must be held accountable by a higher authority. It is notorious that, among sovereign nations, no such authority exists. The UN is just a theatrical stage where nations scuffle for advantage. As Ortega y Gasset observed, there isn’t even such a thing as international law, because true law would require a higher court of appeal, and that would require a surrender of sovereignty – something no government on earth would willingly contemplate.
President Obama is in no way a fool. He must know all this. If he isn’t willing to give the order to bring the Qaddafi regime to account, then in what sense does he believe the man will be held accountable?
I believe I know the answer. It’s speculative, but I’ll stand by it.
The world, according to President Obama, is contained by a moral structure resembling a powerful gravitational field: all human events are embedded in this force, and are driven to their inexorable conclusions by it. The great moral structure of the world is like fate with Judgment Day attached. It acts as the impersonal author of history, rewarding certain actions, punishing others. Only the wisest perceive the flow of the moral structure – and they have deciphered the course of history.
That the president counts himself among the wisest should not be in doubt. He warned Qaddafi’s henchmen to heed the “way history is moving, they should know history is moving against Col. Qaddafi” – and there followed another assertion that they will be held accountable for violence against the population. In defending US inaction, President Obama argued: “The region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history…”
“The region will be watching,” “The whole world is watching,” “violence… will be monitored” – an abiding feature of President Obama’s view of the world is fear of being caught out while on the wrong side of history. That is what he believes has happened to Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi’s goons are on YouTube killing unarmed civilians. He thus “has lost legitimacy to lead.” The great moral structure of the world, rather than any person or nation, will hold him accountable. He will have no choice but to step down. “It is the right thing to do.”
If I’m right in my interpretation, the president is about to commit a tragic error. It’s an error because morality doesn’t pertain to the world but to human action. And it’s tragic because, in the face of turmoil and suffering, he has found a pretext for doing nothing.
The president is like a lifeguard who sees a man drowning in the middle of the river, and walks away thinking, “The current will bring him safe to shore.” But inactivity is an action: if the man drowns, the lifeguard will be accountable. Personal responsibility, not public exposure, is the engine powering morality in the real world.
Each of us is accountable for those actions within our power to do: nothing more, but nothing less. The Libyan people are being tormented by a moral monster, whose grip on power is slipping and who is fighting back without scruples or restraint. Qaddafi’s defeat is not predestined. His victory would set a grim precedent in the area.
The United States has it within its power to intervene in this bloody scene. We aren’t duty-bound to overthrow Qaddafi – just to do our best to preserve decency and protect our interests. To stand by brandishing words and proclamations is to play a game of chance with human life. If that is President Obama’s policy, let’s pray that luck is on his side.
Otherwise, the Libyan people will – rightly – hold him and us accountable.