The Administration's policy towards Libya is decadent, and it doesn't need to be, says FPI Director William Kristol

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Later that day, the president did speak viva voce. He began with this assurance: "First, we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens. That is my highest priority." This echoed his secretary of state from the day before: "The safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority."

Really? The safety and well-being of Luxemburgers abroad is (perhaps) the highest priority of the government of Luxembourg. But Luxembourg is not a great power. The highest priority for the government of the United States has to be to defend and advance the core foreign policy interests of the United States. And in the case of the Libyan uprising, the passivity and dithering of the Obama administration have damaged America's interests and standing around the world.

We don’t dismiss the importance of attending to the well-being of Americans abroad. Needless to say, the government is right to be concerned about our diplomats, their family members, and any other Americans in Libya. Indeed, it might have been a good idea to deploy assets other than a pathetic rented ferry that couldn’t handle choppy waters to get them out of there. And of course, the Obama administration should have made it clear, and should continue to make it clear to all concerned in Libya, what consequences would follow to anyone who harms Americans or impedes their departure.

Still: The attitude that, in a crisis like this, “The safety and well-being of Americans has to be our highest priority,” tends to render the United States mute and impotent. This is clearly the tendency in this specific crisis, and with this specific administration. The mere presence of Americans in a foreign country in turmoil has become an excuse for inaction. Our diplomats and our citizens traveling abroad have become de facto hostages to the government of any state in which they work or visit. Our ability to act quickly and decisively in a crisis has been severely compromised.
 
The mere presence of American nationals in Tripoli does not magically render a great nation powerless, however. There are plenty of things the Obama administration could be doing, right now, to influence the situation in Libya. A vocal defense of liberty, support for governments that enjoy the consent of the governed, and forceful condemnation of the crimes Muammar Qaddafi is now perpetrating against his people would be just for starters. There are many policy options available to the president. They include: In conjunction with our NATO allies, he can send more naval assets to the Mediterranean; he can establish a no-flight zone over Libyan airspace; he can direct the Treasury to freeze the assets of the Libyan government and the Qaddafi family; he can establish lines of direct humanitarian aid to the population; he can consider halting the importation of Libyan oil into the United States. These and other such actions would not be without risk or cost. But they would put the United States squarely on the side of an oppressed people against a terrorist-friendly dictator. And they would increase the likelihood that the crisis is resolved quickly with the overthrow of Qaddafi, and without any further crimes against humanity or the dissolution of Libya into civil war.
 
At the moment, sad to say, other governments seem to have been willing to be more proactive than the government of the United States. As if that weren't embarassing enough, all of the White House's paper statements and its leaky chartered ferry have raised a more disturbing question. Have our elites—and not just those running the Obama administration—become so encumbered by self-doubt, so weakened by sophistication, so seduced by the excuses provided by the claim of helplessness, that they are incapable of acting decisively? Once Americans tried to seize every moment of opportunity. Now we are far more likely to stand back and watch history unfold, and to explain why we can’t do anything to shape that history. After all, our foreign policy establishment explains condescendingly, the challenges are daunting. So many forces are beyond our control. The risks are great. The obstacles are overwhelming.
 
There is another word for this widespread attitude of passive self-doubt. That word is decadence.

Last week’s farcical ferry, bobbing aimlessly in the waters off Tripoli, was an image for our government's embrace of helplessness, for its acceptance of decline. It recalled the downed helicopters in Iran in early 1980, emblems of the failed Carter administration. But at least President Carter sent helicopters. In so doing he overruled his secretary of state, who wished to do nothing. So far, then, this president is performing in this crisis at a sub-Jimmy Carter level of assertiveness and command.

America doesn't need to be decadent. Obama doesn't need to be decadent. He is the same president, after all, who rejected counsels of defeatism in Afghanistan and surged troops into theater, where we are now making remarkable progress on the battlefield—and even beginning to see political progress. There is also, lest we forget, the recent example of the successful surge in Iraq, a policy implemented when sophisticates across the globe counseled America to retreat.

Self-doubt and paralysis are not only problems for the Obama administration. Mike Huckabee, for example, is a frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination. Last Wednesday, as President Obama was waxing ineffectual in the White House, Huckabee met with journalists a few blocks away at the St. Regis Hotel. Someone asked him about the war in Afghanistan. “What’s the endgame we’re laying here?" he wondered. "I can’t see a conclusion.” And Huckabee continued: “You go to Afghanistan and look around and ask, am I in a country or on the surface of the moon?”

Well, let's answer Huckabee's question: The attacks of September 11, 2011, did not come from the surface of the moon. They came from a country called Afghanistan. There are people, not aliens, living there, people who threaten us. And there are other people, not aliens, living there, men, women, and children who deserve a better life and a respite from chaos. And, not incidentally, more than a hundred thousand American soldiers and Marines are fighting there too. Is it really appropriate for a man who would be commander-in-chief to indulge in cheap throwaway lines about such a place?

In the final analysis, we suppose, Huckabee's musings on the fate of Afghanistan really don't matter. But it does matter when, among political leaders in both parties, cleverness replaces seriousness, and ducking responsibility becomes an art form. That is decadence.

One sees today across America, often within the same parties and institutions and even individuals, two tendencies at work, two forces competing for dominance: a decline into cynicism and decadence, and a surge toward responsibility and renewal. In this respect, Libya and Afghanistan—and for that matter the showdown in Wisconsin and the budget battles on Capitol Hill—are not simply separate events. They are different scenes in an ongoing drama. It’s a drama nicely summed up in that wonderful playground taunt: “Are you a man or a mouse? Squeak up.”

Last week the Obama administration squeaked up.

- Originally written for The Weekly Standard

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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