President Obama has, at long last, publicly called on Col. Moammar Qaddafi to end his 42-year tenure as dictator of Libya.
The fact that the president has waited so long to make any public gesture in this direction, and the forum in which he addressed Qaddafi—a joint press conference with the president of Mexico—surely detracts from any power his words might have carried. So, too, does his reasoning: Qaddafi, says Obama, "has lost the legitimacy to lead"—a phrase which combines turgid language with the implication that Qaddafi, who staged a coup d’état and has exercised dictatorial power since 1969, was ever Libya's "legitimate" leader. Informing Qaddafi that he has lost the "legitimacy to lead" lacks the unambiguous impact of Cromwell's famous rebuke to the Long Parliament—"Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"—but at this stage in the protracted Libyan struggle, it is better than nothing.
Observers of the Obama administration's tentative behavior—leasing a private ferry to transport American nationals from Tripoli, emphasizing the necessity of "coordinated" diplomatic gestures against Qaddafi, describing in detail the military obstacles to action—have wondered if the White House might be wary of the exercise of American power. This is no longer a rhetorical question: The Obama administration is not only reluctant to advance (or, for that matter, defend) the national interest in Libya, but seems to regard the national interest as suspect in itself. President Obama has always been careful to personalize policy under these circumstances: The Muslim world, or the Arab states, have been addressed by Barack Obama, not by the president of the United States. Why the president should think as he does is another subject, but the crisis in Libya only emphasizes that it is so.
Accordingly, in Libya, the United States has not only turned its back on a heroic resistance movement, and missed an opportunity to advance democracy in the Middle East, but visibly weakened American power as well. President Obama has been manifestly more concerned about the welfare of U.S. citizens in Libya—or put another way, the political implications of a hostage crisis—than about the welfare of American national interests. When asked about the feasibility of a "no-fly" zone in Libya, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has described in detail the difficulties inherent in such a course of action, and the secretary of defense has implied that U.S. military power may not be equal to the challenge of the Libyan air force. Nobody, especially those within Libya pleading for Western help, can fail to comprehend the meaning of such talk.
Now that President Obama has chosen to question Colonel Qaddafi's "legitimacy to lead," and matched his rhetoric with peripheral gestures aimed at transporting humanitarian assistance to Libya's borders, the United States has not only missed an opportunity to make history in the region, but has signaled our unwillingness, and our apparent inability, to defend and advance American interests abroad.