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An Administration Adrift

What? Us do something about Libya?

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Yet pressure mounted for the White House to do something or, at the very least, say something. White House press secretary Jay Carney took the podium on February 23 to answer numerous questions about Obama’s bizarre silence. When CBS News Radio’s Mark Knoller pushed Carney for a better sense of when Obama might speak on Libya, Carney explained that Obama would be meeting with Clinton that afternoon.

“This is just a scheduling issue,” Carney said. “As I said, the president will meet with Secretary of State Clinton this afternoon, his regular meeting, and they will obviously discuss Libya. We will have something to say out of that meeting, and if possible, the president will speak this afternoon or tomorrow.”

The White House apparently got its scheduling issues resolved, making it possible for the leader of the free world to address the massacre in Libya late that afternoon. Twenty-four hours after Gates had said he had two or three meetings a day on Libya, Obama said his national security team had been working “around the clock” on the crisis. The team had prepared for Obama a “full range of options”—presumably Obama’s way to let Qaddafi know that a military response was possible.

If Qaddafi had been worried that he might see American jets overhead or even U.S. Marines on the shores of Tripoli, the plans Obama announced no doubt came as a relief. Undersecretary of State Bill Burns, the president said, would be traveling to Europe for consultations with allies, and five days later Secretary Clinton would be flying to Geneva for additional meetings.

If that sounds like a State Department-heavy approach to the situation, it was. The State Department, having failed to remove its embassy personnel before Tripoli was a warzone, told the White House that any show of strength, even a strong condemnation of Qaddafi, risked the lives of Americans in country. The situation was further complicated by the fact that the United States had pulled its ambassador from Libya in January—leaving the embassy without a leader. So State had urged a cautious approach. The prospect of another American hostage crisis was paralyzing.

The administration defended this extraordinary picture of weakness by pointing out that a more forceful response had to wait until all Americans were evacuated from Libya—an argument that might have been more convincing if every American had been safely out of Libya when President Obama spoke. They were not. The Americans were stranded and helpless aboard a ferry that could not depart because of bad weather.

Think about that. The State Department spokesman couldn’t say whether Muammar Qaddafi is a dictator. An administration official saw in a speech promising war the possibility of peace. Despite tumult and unrest in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, the Obama administration apparently made few preparations to evacuate diplomatic personnel and their families and did virtually no planning for the possibility of a regime-led slaughter. The president did not speak out about the unfolding crisis because it didn’t fit his schedule. He responded by flying diplomats to Europe for meetings.

The president found his footing after a slow start on Egypt. And for a moment it seemed that the reactive, almost passive foreign policy that guided his first two years would change.

It did not. Which leads to one question: Is Barack Obama afraid of American power?

Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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