While Carthage Burns, Obama Dithers

If we think of Carthage not as Tripoli, but as Libya, our title makes sense.

Supremely calculating, President Obama doesn’t seem motivated to do anything to prevent large numbers of Libyans, caught up in the fever of peaceful revolution that swept through Tunisia and then Egypt, from either being massacred or being slowly picked off, one by one.

Given the playbook telegraphed to the world, bets are Moammar Qaddafi will avoid the large-scale masacres that might be picked up by NATO surveillance planes and other capabilities, in favor of a slower though no less ruthless policy of picking off his opponents one by one. We know the routine: men with guns arrive at a residence in the dark of the night, and drag someone away.

Nonetheless, massacres remain a possibility, particularly when Qaddafi seeks to retake Benghazi.

Whatever the means, the use of state terror may enable Qaddafi to rule by fear, for a while longer.

Meanwhile, Obama demonstrates once again his lack of sense of the historical moment, and his apparent inability to act quickly to avert disaster.

It is now apparent, if it wasn’t earlier, that we need a president who comes to the office with a lifetime of thinking about and participating in international affairs. The world is far too complicated to figure out what to do in a certain situation through purely analytical means, by asking those around you for their views.

What a president needs, it turns out, is a large repertory of foreign policy issues considered and worked through, before he or she becomes president. He or she needs to have taken stands on fundamental moral issues, and worked through crises involving great consequences either way, before entering the Oval Office.

However brilliant you think you are, you can’t do this by grinding out an analysis of what other people tell you. Indeed, the foreign policy experience alluded to above should have informed your very selection of those who surround you and offer their advice.

Tom Ricks writes:

The more I study President Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War, the more nervous I get about the Obama Administration.

I don’t think President Obama is excessively congressional in his outlook. But I fear Vice President Biden is. What’s more, they’ve compounded the error by stocking the White House staff with like-minded people, such as a national security advisor who was a lobbyist and a deputy national security advisor who was a Hill staffer. That comes on top of a president, a vice president and a secretary of State who all came directly from the Senate. That is a very narrow, very peculiar range of experience to bring to the task of dealing with the world out there…

Most of all, the congressional mentality sees little danger in inaction. On Capitol Hill, there’s always the next term. That’s not the case in foreign policy, where opportunities slip away never to return. Lost time is not found again. I think Obama handled Egypt well, but he didn’t have to do much there except speak well, which he does consistently. On Libya, though, dithering is dangerous. If you wait for an international consensus to emerge, it probably won’t…

If we have a foreign policy disaster on Obama’s watch, I think historians will zero in on the dangerous lack of diversity in the backgrounds and viewpoints of his key national security advisors….

The policy is set. Obama is scheduled to travel to Brazil, Chile and El Salvador this weekend. There he will find ample balm to soothe his mind from the critic’s sting.

Meanwhile, those poor souls who listened to what he said about the Egyptian revolution, and who assumed that some actions would follow his repeated declarations that “Qaddafi must go,” will have to face the war machines of a modern state, or the stealthy visits of its state security apparatus in the pit of the night, on their own.

The impact of Obama’s actions on the minds of the Arab masses in the Middle East and North Africa who live under dictatorial regimes, should not be dismissed or underestimated.

Here, Obama had a chance to get out in front of history. But to get out in front, you have to lead, not bring up the rear.

The Observer

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