WH Chief of Staff Bill Daley says violence in Libya is not America’s problem, rather a human problem

Posted on March 10, 2011

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This past Sunday on Meet the Press, a rather peculiar and telling exchange of words occurred between Bill Daley, the Obama White House Chief of Staff, and David Gregory.  Mr. Gregory asked Mr. Daley whether or not the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power in Libya is a “vital U.S. interest.”  The MTP moderator repeated this question three distinct times and each time Mr. Daley gave an answer other than “yes” or “no”.  He first responded with, “Stopping the violence, first of all, is most important.”  Then, when pushed further: “Qaddafi should go for the people of Libya… it is in the world’s interest that this action be stopped.”  And, finally, when asked a third time:  “It is in our interest, as human beings…”  That’s right, Daley went so far as to speak of the interests of the Libyan people, the world, even the entire human race, but would not clarify whether or not ousting Qaddafi was in the interests of the United States in particular.

At first it appeared as though Daley dodged this question simply because he did not want to set the White House up for failure.  Certainly, if the Obama administration were to claim that removing Qaddafi is a “vital U.S. interest” and then Qaddafi somehow manages to remain in power, the President would face questions regarding his inability to achieve a goal that he himself placed as a top priority.  However, looking a little closer, Daley’s avoidance of the “A”-word in fact reveals quite a bit about the White House’s angle in tackling this conflict and Obama’s view in general of what America’s proper role should be in international affairs.

David Gregory, finally getting to the point he was trying to make in asking the question, stated bluntly, “No one can force him out unless we lead the way.”  Daley replied that he was unsure of whether or not that was a true statement, meaning that the Obama administration wants to distance America from its reputation as the “World Police.”  And, with a $700 billion annual defense budget and a majority of Americans considering deficit reduction to be of primary concern to the country, who can blame Obama for refusing to stretch the U.S. military to a third Middle Eastern country without assistance from Europe?

“The international community is going to come together…” Daley said. “To have a coordinated effort to bring pressure on Qaddafi from the entire world, to say ‘stop this.'”  With all this emphasis on “the world” and so little on “America,” it is clear that the Obama administration is unwilling to accept the notion that halting human rights abuses around the world and bringing democracy to the Middle East is solely America’s responsibility.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both expressed that if a no-fly zone is implemented, it should not be a U.S.-led effort but rather an internationally-backed effort.

How America, Europe, and the rest of the industrialized world go about dealing with the uprising and civil war in Libya will undoubtedly set a precedent for future internal power struggles in 3rd world nations.  It seems that Obama’s main goal is to not allow the other major players to export all responsibility for mollifying violent conflicts to the United States.  American conservatives like Monica Crowley may call Mr. Obama “weak” because he does not “shoot from the hip” like George W. Bush and instead chooses his words with caution, but it should be of no surprise that he is waiting for countries like France, Italy, Germany, and Britain to get on board militarily considering all of these countries are being pressured by their citizens to do so.  This situation is nothing like Iraq almost a decade ago when most of Europe was content to see Saddam Hussein remain in power.  In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s people have accused him of rubbing up too closely to both Mubarak and Qaddafi (he publicly defended and praised the dictators just days before both uprisings), while the French criticized Nicolas Sarkozy and his miserable foreign minister, Michele Aliot-Marie, of ingratiating themselves with the ruthless Tunisian dictatorship.  This week’s issue of The Economist explains that, in the past, due to national concerns regarding immigration, terrorism, oil, and trade, these European countries have embraced policies of realpolitik in dealing with Middle Eastern countries.  Now, both Sarkozy and Berlusconi have been quick to support the Libyan revolt for fear of ending up on the wrong side of history.

Obama decided to make his first somewhat explicit remarks regarding possible U.S. military intervention only when he had British Prime Minister David Cameron by his side, proving that he is willing to pull back the veil on White House plans just a bit in exchange for European willingness to help out.  I assume now that Britain and France have drafted a UN Security Counsel Resolution calling for a no-fly zone, Obama and his team will leak a few more tidbits of what they have been preparing behind closed doors.

Too often leaders are praised for what they do and people forget to appreciate them for what they do not do.  It is becoming clear as day that the United States need not go it alone in resolving conflicts such as we see in Egypt and Libya and Obama’s stoic-like patience has continuously made Republicans look naive in their trigger-happy pleas for U.S. intervention without U.N. approval.  The question is, would Obama’s policy of patience work in every situation where an ally is needed to help stabilize a region or overthrow a dictator?  Obviously not.  Case and point:  we have waited for China to assist us in reigning in North Korea’s insane and despotic leader Kim Jong Il for almost 20 years and in this instance patience has proved entirely fruitless.

UPDATE (03/20/11): As expected, now that a French and British-led military intervention in Libya has begun, the United States has entered the fight as well.  In general, everything has worked out according to plan for the Obama administration, but the question as to whether or not it is the optimal plan still remains.  As Ross Douthat points out, this has thus far been a textbook liberal military intervention, and there are numerous similarities between Obama in Libya and Bill Clinton in Somalia, Yugoslavia, and Kosovo.  Douthat looks at the possible drawbacks of this approach, particularly the fact that the time it took for the vast multilateral coalition to form allowed Qaddafi to “consolidate his position on the ground,” thereby increasing his chances of maintaining power in the event of a ceasefire.  Furthermore, Douthat contends that a lack of commitment of ground troops by the coalition will likely result in a prolonged, very bloody conflict similar to Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  This may all be true, but if removing Qaddafi from power were only possible via a swift, predominately American-led ground invasion of Libya, would a rebel victory really end up being worth the cost to the U.S.?  Here’s a better way of putting it: would you rather see another Bosnian War or another Iraq War?

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