By the time you read this, any number of eventualities may have played out in Libya. It is possible that the rebels and Muammar Qaddafi will be locked in a stalemate, or Qaddafi will have brutally reestablished control over a country that no longer regards his rule as legitimate, or—this scenario now seems crushingly unlikely—the rebels will have managed to topple the dictator once and for all. It is possible, too, that President Obama may have decided finally to impose a no-fly zone or recognize the Libyan provisional government or arm the rebels or strike Qaddafi’s forces from the air. It is also possible that the United States will have continued to sit on its hands.
But, whatever happens in the coming days, the verdict on America’s conduct during this crisis has already been written. Even if we do eventually act on behalf of the rebels, in a policy of active support for a democratic uprising, history will show that we have been at best slow, at worst delinquent. The president’s pace has been not only deliberate, it has also been heartless. Qaddafi’s foul regime appeared vulnerable for many weeks. He was internationally isolated and rapidly losing control of territory. The only assets he had left were a small and somewhat rickety air force and a group of foreign mercenaries. But it soon became clear that the Libyan rebels would not be able to accomplish their mission as long as Qaddafi had a monopoly on the skies. In short, they needed help. A few steps by the West—the establishment of a no-fly zone, the jamming of Qaddafi’s command-and-control apparatus, the arming of the rebels—might have radically increased their odds of winning. And so the rebels repeatedly said that they wanted international military assistance. Meanwhile, Britain and France pushed for a no-fly zone, and the Arab League—not exactly in the habit of calling for Western intervention to help depose dictators—did the same. Here at home, a wide array of politicians, including Democrats, urged the president to do more to help the rebels.
Despite all these pleas, the Obama administration has yet to act. Why? All sorts of objections to American involvement in Libya have been raised: We must not intervene in another Muslim country; a no-fly zone will inevitably lead to further military escalation; what comes after Qaddafi could be chaos or worse. There are good answers to these objections, and they have been articulated, so far futilely, in the public debate; but against all these objections we would set a larger countervailing—and very liberal—consideration: that the Libyan people have rights and interests, that they are acting on their rights and interests, and that their rights and interests ought to be in the forefront of our thinking about how to deal with what is, after all, their country. When suffering people rise up, with no outside provocation, against a tyrant, and then ask for modest international assistance—not ground troops, not special forces-why should the bar for acceding to their request be so impossibly high?
It is true that the world is a callous place; but that does not justify our complicity in its callousness. The Obama presidency, moreover, was not supposed to be a callous affair. Unfortunately, what we have seen from Obama over the past two years is a tendency to give short shrift to the struggles of oppressed people in his foreign policy calculations. He was slow to put the moral weight of the United States behind the people of Iran in 2009, and he is still equivocal about the place of the Iranian democracy movement in U.S. policy toward Tehran. He was slow to emphatically take the side of the brave protesters in Tahrir Square. The eternity that it took him, finally, sort of, for a while, to make the pursuit of human rights a prominent theme of our dealings with China remains a historical embarrassment. At this late date in the history of Obama’s pragmatism—which he dresses up in high idealist rhetoric about bearing witness and history’s bending arc and so on—it is perhaps not a shock that he is so deeply reluctant to use our power to help the Libyan people topple one of the world’s worst tyrants. Yes, there are practical complications; but there will be practical complications also if we do nothing. How many times will we turn our backs on people who are bravely resisting tyranny—in the name of secular democratic principles and in regions of the world where political liberalization would represent a strategic miracle for us—before we remember who we are? Where, oh where, is the extended hand?
This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.