Obama’s Reaction to Libya Explained

In the wake of the Libyan rebellion, President Obama has been attacked from all sides for his reaction. Some criticize him for not acting soon enough, while others criticize him for not clearly stating the American objective. Overall there seems to be an attitude and air of confusion. No one seems to understand what he is thinking or what he is doing. To anyone who has listened to and analyzed any of Obama’s foreign policy speeches, however, his actions come as no surprise. In fact, they are amazingly consistent with his general foreign policy message.

Obama’s foreign policy is an interesting mix of principles. It is based upon promoting American national security through repairing the American connection with the world, emphasizing a shared humanity and common interest, promoting human rights, ending nuclear proliferation, promoting self determination, and finally, promoting equality through supporting development. To put it succintly, the message is peace through common interest, common security, and common humanity. He sees the US as an example to the rest of the world, yet not isolated from everyone else. He believes in engaging the world through mutual respect and consideration; changing the world not by forcing conformity, but by setting an example and providing opportunities for change. Obama is certainly willing to work with other countries to pursue prosperity and peace.

To truly understand his attitudes and foreign policy, however, it would be best to look at the content of his speeches directly.

In his Inaugural Address in January 2009, Obama he stresses that “our power alone cannot protects us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please… our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justice of our cause, the force of our example, [and] the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.” He does not see the use of force as necessarily the most efficient course of action, but neither does he eliminate it as a possibility entirely. He acknowledges and stresses American greatness and influence, but only in order to more strongly legitimize American engagement. Power not to act all the time, but rather to act responsibly.

He addresses three portions of the globe: the Muslim word, the developing world, and the developed world. To Muslim he says, “we seek a new way forward based on mutual interest and mutual respect.” To the developing world he promises “to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean water flow, to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.” To the developed world he calls for action, saying, “we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders.” He emphasizes the common global good, and peace and dignity for “each nation and every man, woman, and child.”

From this speech alone we can tell a lot about what his future actions would look like. He supports human rights and dignity, that is abundantly clear, but he also acknowledges that in the global arena the US cannot simply do as it sees fit. There are other people, other nations, and other interests which must be acknowledged and respected, particularly the Muslim world. In the case of Libya this means that while he would like to see Libyans thriving under a new government which promotes peace, equality, and prosperity, he understands that he is not the only interest in the area. Muslim countries also have a stake in the results of the revolution. Rather than having the US (or other developed countries) jump in all at once, he understands that for things to work in the long run, Muslim countries and the US must be working together, not at odds. That means he must take the time to work with the Arab league, even if it takes a bit more time. As he continually emphasizes multilateralism, this particular course of action should be no surprise, although it would be understandable that it certainly is not what most Americans are used to.

Obama made another major foreign policy speech in Cairo, Egypt in June of 2009. This speech is mostly directed at the Muslim world. He states, “I have come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap and share common principles, principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” He acknowledges that the relationship will not change overnight, but stresses a need for a “sustained effort to listen to each other, to learn from each other, to respect one another, and to seek common ground.” After making such a commitment to respect Muslim countries and opinions, how could anyone truly expect him to sweep into Libya without regard to the Arab league, and without regard to the effect such actions would have on perceptions of America throughout the world.

In this speech Obama also shows excellent foresight. In regard to democracy he says that “no system of government should be imposed in one nation by another,” and stresses self determination. And one must remember at this point that imposition includes democracy imposed by the US. This would explain his hesitation to get immediately involved. True self-determination would need to be determined by Libya and Libya alone, not by the help or influence of other countries. He emphasizes the role that young people will play in the coming years, and the fact that American values such as “the ability to speak your mind and have a saying how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, [and] the freedom to live as you choose,” are really human values, or human rights. They are values which create strong governments in which everyone can believe.

In his foreign policy speech given about a month later in Moscow, Obama addresses a different audience but reinforces the same principles. Again he emphasizes the universal appeal of American values: “governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.” Then we get to his very interesting observation that “America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country.” We’ve heard this before, but this time he goes on: “… nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country… we do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.” These statements lead to a couple of essential observations. First, if the US chooses to support the rebels in Libya, then isn’t the US in some way choosing, or at least supporting, a particular group to run the country? And does that not violate the principle that people should choose their own leaders, a principle that Obama expressly gives his support? Perhaps this explains his hesitation, despite humanitarian challenges, to choose a side to support. As of yet, not all Libyans have decided to support the rebels, but by getting involved the US (and other countries) are choosing for them.

Secondly, Obama’s observation requires us to look at what it means to choose one’s government and what the phrase “self-determination” really means. In its most basic definition, a self-determined government is simply one that is chosen by the people. To some this implies a representative government, but I would argue that every government is “self-determined.” Previous generations chose not to rebel. (I am not trying to place any blame here. Everyone has their reasons for doing things. In their case, they weighed their options, and rebellion came out as too costly. A new generation did some weighing of their own and determined that rebelling would be the best option. That is just how things work). The point is, however, that by choosing not to rebel against a despot, they chose to remain under his rule. So, no, the government was not self-determined in the sense that they set up a representative government which responded to the needs of the people. But yes, it was self-determined in the sense that there is always an element of choice.

And the people of Libya continue to choose. Some have chosen to rebel while others remain undecided. And aren’t members of the Libyan army also simply Libyans? They just happen to be choosing a despotic leader, but does that mean that they do not matter? They may not be civilians, but they are still citizens. I am not trying to start a debate about whether or not members of the military count as civilians. The point I am trying to make is that the idea of “self-determination” is not as simple and clear cut as many would try to make it out to be. With our American values held high we might not like the fact that some Libyans would still choose a despot, but we cannot disregard or forget the facts.

I think looking at the events in this light helps to illuminate President Obama’s hesitations toward acting immediately, swooping in to remove Gadhafi. If the Libyans truly want to be free, then they need to have the opportunity to fight for it and earn it themselves. We learned in Iraq that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. While removing Gadhafi might end a conflict, it would not actually help the rebellion. It would not help Libya unite, and then any government that resulted from the rebellion would fall apart. Obama understands the precariousness of intervention, and why the United States needs to use its power prudently and limit its meddling. From his speech it is clear what kind of course of action he would likely take.

Furthermore, Obama made a foreign policy speech directly towards Africa when he spoke in Ghana in July of 2009. While he stresses that democracy works for everyone, but that it is grounded in both civil society and “capable, reliable, and transparent institutions,” he refuses the possibility that America would work to impose a government on any country. He supports a “bottom up,” grassroots movement in which Africans work to help Africans, with America by their side “every step of the way, as a partner, as a friend.” Friends offer guidance and support, but they do not fight other people’s battles for them. They understand that for someone to grow and make any meaningful changes, they need to do things on their own. At the time of the speech, I am sure the last thing Obama expected to happen a year and a half later was a revolution. What he most likely expected was for Africans to begin building a civil society which would over time overcome the obstacles of corrupt governments. It would be much easier for the US to offer guidance to an African country on such a path. During an outright revolution, however, it is much more difficult for a friend and adviser to say and do the right things.

Finally, Obama’s speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2009 is his most succinct. Creating global peace requires establishing “a new era of engagement in which all nations must take responsibility for the world we seek.” This means Obama believes in common, rather than unilateral, action in order to establish common security. Common action, however, requires “mutual interest and mutual respect.” In his actions toward Libya, Obama clearly exhibits both characteristics: taking the time to ensure multilateral support among both European and Arab nations is quite a feat; establishing mutual interest through showing respect and understanding, rather than bombing.

Through his speeches, we begin to see Obama’s actions more clearly. Rather than cannonballing into a pool, without regard to the splash it would create, Obama wades in slowly. Cannonballing and wading: both get you into the pool, but one is far less destructive. In an area already fraught with destruction, already in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, the best option would be to add as little to that destruction as possible. Doing so requires the prudent, restricted, and legitmate use of power. That is the course of action Obama is taking. It may not be the course of action all Americans like, understand, or are familiar with, but it certainly should not be a surprise.

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