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The President's Deafening Silence on Libya

11:41 AM, Feb 22, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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After almost a week of escalating violent reprisals against protestors and soldiers who have joined the anti-regime forces, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and his sons have yet to quell the uprisings—and the White House has yet to take a public stand. Last night, Secretary Clinton released a statement, and pathetic as it was, it’s more than the president has offered—a president who has spent considerable energy burnishing his image for the Muslim and Arab public.

The President's Deafening Silence on Libya

It is rumored that there are differences within the administration, but it is still unclear who could be counseling silence, or for what purpose. To be sure, the Bush administration neutered Qaddafi with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leaving him to believe he was next on Washington’s agenda. He dropped his nuclear weapons program and stopped sponsoring terrorism—but Qaddafi is not a U.S. ally, and with his treatment of his Libyan citizens he has shown he is the same old Qaddafi, a danger to his own people as well as the rest of the world.

The Obama administration would do well to exercise some moral clarity regarding a man whose personal demeanor has long symbolized the most repressively autocratic and obscurantist features of Arab political culture—a man who reportedly has now, among other things, dispatched his air force to put down the people he rules. The White House’s silence is perhaps explained by the idea that a public statement will do more harm than good.

“It is remarkable,” says Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush White House, “that the administration appears to believe at the same time that our government is headed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is globally beloved, and that if he states his support for any cause it is immediately doomed or at least damaged. This may be some complex cognitive dissonance, but it appears more like simple confusion.”

The same is true of the White House’s decision to keep its support of Iranian protestors muted, for fear that the Islamic Republic might turn even more vicious. This policy seems to be a result of the Obama White House buying into the “kiss of death” fallacy. This line of thinking holds that since the U.S. is so hated in the Middle East, American support for any political cause in the region can only backfire by undermining the cause.

The “kiss of death” thesis was a favorite of liberal journalists during the Bush years who were eager to have another instrument at hand to attack the Republican president. Having just returned fresh from meetings with local businessmen, political activists and other so-called liberal opposition figures in the region, it never occurred to columnists like Fareed Zakaria and Roger Cohen that the meetings arranged for them were directed by Middle Eastern regimes for a specific purpose. The regional powers knew that U.S. journalists were by and large opposed to Bush, so the regimes saw in the American media a channel to put out a message that suited their needs. Middle East rulers wanted to keep the U.S. out of their own affairs, but instead used regime mouthpieces to couch it in terms that soothed the liberal conscience: U.S. interference was bad for the region’s liberals and opposition figures. Therefore, anything the U.S. touched amounted to the kiss of death.

The thesis is absurd on the face of it: if it were really true, then Washington would have an instrument so powerful that it could bring down adversarial regimes with a mere whisper. After all, a public statement to the effect that Washington considered President X a dear friend and would do anything in its power to keep him enthroned for the rest of his life and ensure the succession of his progeny until the world ended would presumably send the Muslim and Arab masses to the streets until they had President X’s head on a stake. But the “kiss of death” thesis has no basis in reality; it is merely a political tool that Democratic operatives in the U.S. media used against Bush. However, since Obama’s anything-but-Bush foreign policy is based on the same principle underlying the “kiss of death” fallacy, it is no surprise that the administration believes in its veracity, and this is why it is now tongue-tied.

If there really is an argument in the administration about what to say and do concerning Libya, we can hope that means that there is at least one faction in the White House that sees the world, and America’s role in it, clearly. U.S. support does not undermine a cause; when it is a factor at all, it lends prestige to it. In any case, neither Qaddafi nor the opposition is waving Old Glory. It is a Libyan affair, a Libyan conflict fought over Libyan issues, with the power to rule Libya in the balance. The White House’s task is to shape events in Libya to suit U.S. interests—and silence doesn’t cut it.

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