Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Before a President Speaks

by Elliott Abrams
March 7, 2011

It is a serious problem for the United States when our top officials make categorical statements and then do nothing to enforce them. On February 28 the secretary of state said this about Libya:

“Colonel Qadhafi and those around him must be held accountable for these acts, which violate international legal obligations and common decency. Through their actions, they have lost the legitimacy to govern. And the people of Libya have made themselves clear: It is time for Qadhafi to go – now, without further violence or delay.”

On March 3, the president added his own voice:

“Going forward, we will continue to send a clear message: The violence must stop. Muammar Qaddafi has lost the legitimacy to lead and he must leave. Those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable. And the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.”

These statements raise an interesting question about Qaddafi’s “loss” of legitimacy, to which both officials referred. When exactly did he have that legitimacy, and how did he earn it? He held power, but that is a different matter entirely.

But the larger problem is that these statements by the president and secretary of state do not appear to animate U.S. policy. “Lots of people throw around the phrase of ‘no-fly zone,’ and they talk about it a though it’s just a game, a video game or something, and some people who throw that line out have no idea what they’re talking about,” said the new White House chief of staff, William Daley. Secretary of Defense Gates has come close to mocking those who would use military power, calling discussion of a no-fly zone “loose talk.” Considering that this “loose talk” came from among others Sen. John McCain, whose military experience is a bit more impressive than Gates’s or Daley’s, these comments were offensive: not an argument but a substitute for argument.

Just where the administration now stands is, accordingly, unclear. The president has gone as far as he can go rhetorically, but apparently without any plan to turn his words into reality. That’s always a mistake for an American leader, and one that must give our allies around the world the shakes.

It must also cause wonder among Americans, who are footing the bill for our military establishment. Total military spending for FY2011 was $739 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Total Libyan defense spending was somewhat lower. And some parts of the Libyan air force and air defense system are not operational, while others have now defected to the opposition to Qaddafi. It is very difficult to believe that enforcement of a no-fly zone is beyond the capacity of the U.S. military, or that it is a very hard project. Sen. John Kerry suggested that a one-time cratering of runways could make most of Libya’s remaining air force unable to take off.

The president should decide these things before he speaks, not weeks after.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Erwin Schotzger

    In principle I totally agree. Such preaching statements without outcome or follow-up just forfeit credibility and soft power of US politics.

    To be fair the analysis has to include the target audience – and I guess in this case the target audience are not primarily the people of Libya, nor the Middle East.

    First and foremost this goes to the international community, especially to the 4 other members of the security council – because Obama will not act without UN legitimation. Maybe that’s one reason why the term “legitimacy” is used so extensive (because it’s true: Qadhafi never had it).

  • Posted by Erwin Schotzger

    And by the way: If China or Russia use their veto, there will be no UN legitimation – and after the disaster of George W. Bush’s foreign policy Obama is well advised not to act without UN legitimation, even to help free an arabian nation on… demand and for real (not high-handed and based on lies like in Iraq). It’s almost irony.

    So, I agree. But to be fair – in this case it’s about diplomacy. Granted, it’s a slow working clockwork … drives you mad sometimes … but if China or Russio say no, there would be the question: intervention without UN legitimation, in opposition to international law? Like in Kosovo? Not after G.W.Bush … yes, it’s really irony!

  • Posted by PissedOffAmerican

    It is truly ironic, seeing someone such as Abrams decrying the President failing to deliver on the threats of accountability. Considering the epic con-job that was used to sell the invasion of Iraq, and Abrams’ complicity, I too am disappointed that Obama is such an empty suit. The crimes and abuses of the Bush Administration are going unpunished, and that does not bode well if one wishes the law to be a deterent for future crimes and abuses committed by our elected officials and their minions.

  • Posted by Maine's Michael

    Well, you have to cut Obama a little slack.

    He is a slave to the lowest common denominator of international ‘consensus’.

    Not just on Libya. On everything.

  • Posted by Jason

    What leaders need to understand is that the timing of a response is not nearly as important as the content of it.

  • Posted by Peter

    I totally concur. Speaking loudly and boldly with a small or no stick creates confusion and diminishes any confidence among our friends and enemies that the USG knows what it’s doing, though obviously the enemies derive more satisfaction than the friends. Right on target as usual, EA .. regrettably.

  • Posted by Nina Lesches

    I like material like this. This really is a great write-up and I actually enjoyed reading it. You have an original style that makes your concepts stand out from other writers.

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