Try this thought experiment. It's Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011, and President Sarah Palin is delivering a speech on Libyan dictator Moammer Gadhafi's murderous response to dissidents protesting his government. It's time, she says, to "speak out for the long-suffering Libyan people" and "the victims of Gadhafi's terror." She says she's talking to NATO allies about a no-fly zone "so Libyan air forces cannot continue slaughtering the Libyan people." Libya, she adds, is "a brutal enemy of America."
A day later, Libyan forces board a ferry trapped in the Tripoli harbor because of rough seas, and capture nearly 200 Americans trying to flee. Some are government employees and their dependents; all are now hostages in a land of escalating violence and turmoil.
Cut. Experiment over, and Palin isn't president. But she did write those very words
and phrases on Facebook last Tuesday -- four days before that ferry safely left Libya for Malta. Her point was to draw a contrast between what President Barack Obama had said at that point on Libya (very little) and what she thought needed to be said (regardless of the consequences for Americans trapped there).
Palin is not the only potential Republican presidential candidate to condemn or carp about Obama's approach. The historic, government-shaking protests that began in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and even momentarily to Iran, have brought out conservative kibbitzers in force. Their advice is conflicting in some cases, but it all has the same political effect: to reinforce a distorted image of Obama as an incompetent apologist for America
"They have the luxury of getting to be somewhat irresponsible in their comments," foreign policy expert Steve Clemons
, a White House adviser and senior fellow at the non-partisan New America Foundation, said of the prospective 2012 Republican field. Libya is a case in point. When you see a government "literally go to war" against its own citizens, as Libya's has done, Clemons said, there's a very high probability that foreigners could be detained. "The first thing you've got to think about is Iran and the hostage crisis
," he said. "It's not just all about impulse."
Sure enough, within a few hours of our interview Friday, a ferry and a flight carrying Americans had departed Libya, and Obama cracked down hard. He imposed unilateral sanctions and froze the U.S. assets of the Libyan government, Gadhafi, senior government officials, anyone involved in human rights abuses, and all of their families. He also denounced the government's "brutalization" and "outrageous threats" against its people. Further sanctions and a no-fly zone are under discussion with allies.
The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa are fraught with risk, requiring Obama to think through every word and act as any sitting president would. Too much intervention could turn protesters against America and increase the likelihood of new democracy producing a government unfriendly to us. Such a backlash could even escalate the odds of attacks against America and Americans.
Badly chosen words could cause other allies to second-guess their relations with us, or give leaders or protesters the wrong ideas about what we want. And always there is the tension of wishing to promote our own cherished value of democracy, while worrying that it might produce governments harmful to our national interests and security.
Keeping all that in mind helps explain Obama's mild Feb. 18 statement of concern at reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen. "The United States condemns the use of violence by governments against peaceful protesters in those countries and wherever else it may occur," he said. "The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests, and to respect the rights of their people."
That led former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum to disparage Obama for doing nothing to help dissidents poised to topple the head of a nation, Libya, that he said has been a menace and sponsored terrorism for years. "The best our administration is able to do is denounce the violence and ask Qaddafi to exercise restraint -- something he has never done," Santorum said in a statement to RealClearPolitics.com
Clemons said the "low bar" applied to all three countries made sense at the time, given the need to wait for Americans to leave Libya and to avoid sending the wrong signals to Yemeni protesters. Yemen, he said, is home to "toxic Osama bin Laden look-alikes trying to be the next version of al Qaeda. If the state fails in Yemen because our signals are they ought to knock out (President Ali Abdullah) Saleh, we could end up with a real nightmare -- a blend of Afghanistan and Pakistan in all the worst ways."
He added, "I'm all for principles, but part of the responsibility for a president is to realize that the world is a mixed bag. It requires a combination of deft moves." Obama is actually moving very swiftly compared with past situations such as Rwanda, said Clemons. The adviser calls himself a "constructive supporter" of Obama "but not a flack."
Several current and former governors, weighing presidential bids, have passed up opportunities to find fault with the president and his approach to the turmoil. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said Feb. 1 on ABC that the administration had corrected course in Egypt after a "rocky start
." Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels told Fox Business News the next day that Obama's "policy of modesty
is probably about all that's available to us" in Egypt. And while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee used Palin-like language on CNN on Feb. 24, before the Americans had left Tripoli, he also said that "you have to be careful" and base decisions on good intelligence
, which he said he does not have access to as a private citizen.
The cacophony of criticism included Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich chiding Obama for being too quick to suggest publicly that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak consider stepping down. In an interview with blogger Javier Manjarres, Barbour wondered how heads of state in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Colombia -- allies all, like Mubarak -- "felt when they saw our president calling for throwing the president of Egypt over the side
Most of the critiques, however, reveal an impatience for strong words and actions, or perhaps just a desire to paint Obama as slow and uncertain and themselves as bold and decisive. The same day Palin unloaded on Facebook, Gingrich accused Obama of being less enthusiastic about democracy
in Libya and Iran than he was about democracy in Egypt. And in a Facebook post about Egypt and Libya
, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Obama too often "wavers" in the face of foreign policy challenges, "leaving those fighting on the side of freedom to question America's commitment to their cause."
Pawlenty said it was only after Mubarak's fate was clear that Obama got behind the demonstrators in Tahrir Square (the opposite of the Gingrich-Barbour complaint that Obama was too quick to abandon Mubarak). Now Libyans are trying to free themselves, Pawlenty said, "yet the president remains silent, unwilling or unable to speak with moral clarity about America's interest in supporting the aspirations of all who seek freedom ... It is time for the administration to use all tools at its disposal to pressure al-Qaddafi to stop the violence and to step down."
Obama spoke at length about Libya
the next day. He called the suffering, bloodshed, threats and orders to shoot peaceful protesters "outrageous." He also said he had asked his administration "to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis" on our own, with partners, and through "multilateral institutions."
The statement did little to mollify some conservatives. Elliott Abrams -- a former Reagan and Bush official who along with Clemons is part of a diverse group currently advising the White House -- called Obama's response "pathetic
" and said "prepare" is not an action verb. But as we now know, Obama meant what he said and was waiting for Americans to reach safety before cracking down. And it should be noted that Abrams went to the White House to offer policy suggestions on the region the day after his article appeared in the neo-conservative Weekly Standard.
One of the most bewildering critiques of Obama came with Palin's recycling of a line from one of Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary campaign ads
. In a Feb. 5 interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, she said of Egypt: "This is that 3 a.m. White House phone call
and it seems for many of us trying to get that information from our leader in the White House, it seems that that call went right to the answering machine. And nobody yet has explained to the American public what they know, and surely they know more than the rest of us know, who it is who will be taking the place of Mubarak." As if Obama could predict Egypt's future or disclose government intelligence to the public.
In any case, Obama's best defense is what has happened so far in Egypt -- including the departure of Mubarak and the military's promise of an election this year.
"We were very mindful that it was important for this to remain an Egyptian event; that the United States did not become the issue, but that we sent out a very clear message that we believed in an orderly transition, a meaningful transition, and a transition that needed to happen not later, but sooner," Obama said at a press conference
. "What we ended up seeing was a peaceful transition, relatively little violence, and relatively little, if any, anti-American sentiment, or anti-Israel sentiment, or anti-Western sentiment. And I think that testifies to the fact that in a complicated situation, we got it about right."
Sure, that was a victory lap, but the president was entitled to it. Sometimes it is useful to recall the last administration's "bold" actions and their unintended consequences, and how all of that helped Obama win the Democratic nomination and the White House in 2008. He may move too slowly for some tastes, but for those hoping to avoid further tragic and costly misadventures abroad, his careful deliberation could not be more reassuring.
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