Hoover Daily Report

Obama’s Holbrooke Moment

via Wall Street Journal
Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The right thing, at last. The cavalry arrived in the nick of time. Help came as Moammar Gadhafi's loyalists were at the gates of the free city of Benghazi. There was no mystery in the fate that awaited them. The despot had pretty much said what he intended. He would hunt down those who had found the courage to stand up to him, show them no mercy and no pity.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had seemed particularly obtuse. A decent opposition had coalesced in Benghazi—judges and teachers, businessmen and former members of the Ghadafi regime who wanted to cleanse the shame of their association with the tyranny. Rather than embrace them, rather than give them the diplomatic recognition that France would come to grant them, the secretary of state of the pre- eminent liberal power worried aloud that we didn't know this opposition, that there were "opportunists" within their ranks. And to cap it all, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took away from the uprising the slender hope that it could still hold back the tide. The despot, he said, out in the open for one and all to hear, was destined to prevail.

We don't yet have the details of what can be called the Holbrooke moment—after the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke who all but dragged a reluctant Bill Clinton into Bosnia in 1995.

In Bosnia, as in Libya a generation later, the standard-bearer of American power had a stark choice: It was either rescue or calamity. Benghazi would have been Barack Obama's Srebrenica, the town that the powers had left to the mercy of Ratko Mladic and his killers. No less than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys had paid with their lives for that abdication.

When American power was finally deployed, after 30 months of Clintonian doublespeak and evasion, the bluff was laid bare. The Serbian challengers were put to flight with embarrassing ease. It is of course too early to know the likely course of this intervention, but the ease and the speed with which the no-fly zone over northern Libya was put into effect has echoes of that Balkan episode.

This would be an American rescue mission, with a difference: We would not take the lead, we would defer to France and Britain, and we would let it be known ahead of time that we are not eager to assume a bigger burden in that North African country. This was a break with the record of American rescue missions in other Islamic settings—Kuwait in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003. In all of these previous endeavors, it was America that supplied the will and the sense of moral and strategic urgency.

But President Obama came to this Libyan engagement imbued by a curious doctrine of American guilt. By his light, we are an imperialistic power, and our embrace would sully those we would seek to help.

Middle Eastern rulers and oppositionists alike had come to an unsentimental reading of Mr. Obama: He was no friend of liberty, he had made peace with the order of power in Arab-Islamic lands. Nothing had remained of that false moment of intimacy, in June 2009, when he had traveled to Cairo, the self-styled herald of a new American message to the Arab world. No, what mattered to Mr. Obama, above all, was his differentness, his break with the legacy of George W. Bush. The irony was lost on the liberal devotees of Mr. Obama: a conservative American president who had taken up the cause of liberty in Arab-Islamic lands, and his New Age successor who was nothing but a retread of Brent Scowcroft.

Everywhere Mr. Obama looked, he saw Iraq. We couldn't rescue Tripoli and Benghazi because of what we had witnessed in Fallujah and Sadr City. Iraq was Mr. Obama's entry into the foreign world, it was his opposition to that war that gave him a sense of worldliness and gravitas. He had made much of being "a student of history." But history didn't stretch far for him, and in a man who claimed affinity with distant peoples and places, there was a heavy dosage of parochialism. It was history's odd timing: A great historical rupture in the Arab world, bearing within it the promise of remaking a flawed political tradition that knew no middle ground between despotism and nihilistic violence, happened on the watch of an American president proud of his deliberateness and his detachment from history's passions.

The Obama administration was doubtless surprised by the unexpected decision of the Arab League to grant the green light to the imposition of the no-fly zone. Moral and political clarity had never been an attribute of the Arab League. That organization had never given sustenance to any dissident, never drew a line for the Arab despots. The head of the Arab League for a good number of years now, the Egyptian Amr Moussa, was a creature of the Arab order of power with all its pathologies. His stock-in-trade was that debilitating mix of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. He was beloved by that fabled Arab street because he indulged its ruinous passions and alibis. This was never a good jury to appeal to.

But we needed no warrant from the league of dictators. The warrant came from the Libyan people who pleaded for help and made a case for that help by their own bravery. These were not people sitting on the sidelines, or idling their time away in exile. They were men and women in a long captivity anxious to reclaim their tormented country.

In what seems like a whole age ago, a fortnight back, when the Libyan people fleetingly felt the end of their captivity, an unnamed Libyan blogger gave voice to that promise:

The silence has broken, we will be victorious.

The gentle waves break into the golden shore,

The breezes of freedom reach our souls.

The hearts bleed, our destiny is nearly there.

There was truth in that hopeful and simple verse. For the Libyans, there is a thin line between catastrophe and deliverance. They have given it all, and now their liberty depends on whether the democracies believe that it is worth their while to give the cause of freedom a boost—to provide evidence that justice in the affairs of nations, though it has tarried, is not yet dead.

Mr. Ajami is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.