“This violence must stop.” So President Obama declared the other day about the depravity in Tripoli. This “must” is a strange mixture of stridency and passivity. It is the deontic locution familiar from the editorial pages of newspapers, where people who have no power to change the course of events demand that events change their course. This “must” denotes an order, or a permission, or an obligation, or a wish, or a will. It does not denote a plan. It includes no implication, no expectation, of action. It is the rhetoric of futility: this infection must stop, this blizzard must stop, this madness must stop. But this infection, this blizzard, this madness, like this violence, will not stop, because its logic is to grow. It will stop only if it is stopped. Must the murder of his own people by this madman stop, Mr. President? Then stop it.
There are various ways in which the horror can be brought to an end. Is a no-fly zone really too complicated to negotiate? Then let NATO planes fly over Tripoli to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that make war on the Libyan population. Is the United States really prevented by its past from deploying the small number of troops that would be required to rescue Tripoli from Qaddafi’s bloody grip? Then let a multilateral expeditionary force be raised and a humanitarian intervention be launched to free Libya from its tyrant and then leave Libya to the Libyans. Europeans, Africans, even Egyptians may join the campaign. And impose sanctions; and freeze assets; and summon The Hague. There is no lack of proposals for acting against this monster out of Tacitus. But the president is not yet interested in action. His outrage seems to be satisfied by “consultations” with our “allies and partners,” and with the Human Rights Council in Geneva next Monday. Yes, next Monday: what’s the rush? The main point of Obama’s statement on Libya was that “the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice,” and that “we join with the international community to speak with one voice.” He is calling for words! He actually said that “the whole world is watching,” that foul old slogan of the bystander.
Why is Obama so disinclined to use the power at his disposal? His diffidence about humanitarian emergencies is one of the most mystifying features of his presidency, and one of its salient characteristics. These crises—in Tehran two years ago, in Cairo last month, in Tripoli now—produce in him a lame sort of lawyerliness. He lists the relevant rights and principles and then turns to procedural questions, like those consultations. The official alibi for Obama’s patience with Qaddafi’s atrocity is his concern for the Americans who are still stranded within Qaddafi’s reach; I was amused to learn from a friend that the spin out of the White House includes the suggestion that Obama’s restraint is actually the wisdom of the hostage negotiator. But Obama’s statement about Libya suggests another explanation for his slow pace. This was its climax: “So let me be clear. The change that is taking place across the region is being driven by the people of the region. This change doesn’t represent the work of the United States or any foreign power. It represents the aspirations of people who are seeking a better life.”
They are fighting authoritarianism, but he is fighting imperialism. Who in their right mind believes that this change does represent the work of the United States or any foreign power? To be sure, there are conspiracy theorists in the region who are not in their right mind, and will hold such an anti-American view; but this anti-Americanism is not an empirical matter. They will hate us whatever we do. I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention. I see an American president with a paralyzing fear that it will. In those Middle Eastern streets and squares that have endured the pangs of democratization, the complaint has been not that the United States has intervened, but that the United States has not intervened. The awful irony is that Obama is more haunted by the history of American foreign policy in the Middle East than are many people in the Middle East, who look to him for support in their genuinely epochal struggle against the social death in which their tyrannies have imprisoned them. He worries about the repetition of an old paradigm. They are in the midst of a new paradigm. He does not want to be Bush. They want him to be Obama; or what Obama was supposed to be.
It is a fine sentiment, Obama’s insistence upon the autonomy of the peoples who are making these democratic uprisings; but a number of things need to be said about it. For a start, there already are foreigners who have intervened in Tripoli. They are Qaddafi’s mercenaries, the savage thugs whom he has imported to save his regime by sowing fear. The deployment of Western air power over Libya would be an intervention against this intervention. Is Qaddafi to be allowed outside help and the people of Libya denied it? And help, after all, is all that the terrorized population of Tripoli is beseeching us for. The point that weirdly eludes Obama is that assistance does not compromise the autonomy of those who receive it. Sometimes autonomous people cannot do it alone. This does not mean that we should do it for them. Helping them is not doing it for them. Indeed, they are already doing it: half of Libya has been liberated, the regime has been robbed of any semblance of legitimacy and authority, there are anti-Qaddafi forces fighting effectively near Tripoli, the dictator is quite plainly doomed. We, the United States, accomplished none of this. But the death throes of Qaddafi’s rule could be terrible, and it is only to thwart a slaughter that we need to act. Even if we intervene, we will not have democratized Libya. Libya will have democratized Libya. And it is both our moral duty and our strategic responsibility to align ourselves with this emerging and emancipated Libya.
The idea that assistance does not compromise the autonomy of the assisted is in fact one of the central beliefs of liberalism. We invoke it in our social policies all the time. We help people to help themselves. And that is all that is being asked of us by these liberalizing revolutions; no less, but no more. We disappointed Tehran. We disappointed Cairo. Now we are disappointing Tripoli. It is so foolish, and so sad, and so indecent.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.