What if the news this morning read:
"Supported by air power and several armored tank divisions, Muammar Gaddafi's soldiers this morning moved into Benghazi. Snipers fired upon the rebels from buildings around the central square. Opposition forces were rounded up and executed. Those not executed were moved to internment camps outside the city. Over 500,000 refugees have fled into western Egypt, while thousands have taken to rafts and boats attempting to reach the island of Crete. Libyan rebels claim that over 50,000 people have been massacred. "
No, this is not the situation in Libya. But does anybody doubt that it might have been? And if it were so, the world would be clamoring for the United States to act and bemoaning our lack of leadership in a time of crisis.
The United States has always been motivated to action by the plight of others. We have always stood beside the oppressed as they seek to win their freedom. Sometimes our options are limited. During the cold war, our diplomats in Moscow met regularly with dissenters; unable to secure their freedom at least we could show solidarity. In Chechnya, when the Russian Army pounded the city of Grozny into dust -- we were forced to watch quietly. But sometimes, we can act. During the Panama crisis when the dictator Noriega unleashed his thugs to beat and intimidate opposition, the United States decided that enough was enough and sent in the helicopters. Sometimes, having the opportunity, America fails. During the Rwanda genocide, the United States famously joined the international community in its resolute inaction -- watching from the sidelines as 800,000 people were brutally murdered. These are moments of national shame, when history judges us the harshest.
Now, the stars have aligned, providing the opportunity for the world to rid itself of a four-decade scourge. The time isn't ideal -- but is it ever? The situation is nuanced and fraught with political peril -- but isn't this always the case? Whenever America is called to action, people converge from far and wide to defend the dictator -- whoever he may be and whatever his heinous crimes. But this time, President Obama made the right decision -- a decision that was hard for him to make, that flew in the face of his party and his base, and a decision which has cost him political capital.
To be sure, the method by which Obama made the decision to act lacked the gravitas we expect of our Commander-in-Chief. Acting without a resolution from Congress was a mistake. More concerning is that the president didn't seem to think he needed one. Sure, the War Powers Act is broad, but the president would have gained much needed legitimacy and leadership by pushing for a resolution -- one I am sure he would have quickly received. Announcing the engagement by a recorded message from South America seems cavalier. The American people deserve respect -- and explaining the "why" of military action should not be an afterthought. The president must not take the American people for granted. And making the decision to attack from the office of newly elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was a diplomatic faux pas -- especially given Brazil's refusal to support the UN resolution. The timing of the military action wrest much needed attention from the president's trip to Latin America, which will undoubtedly add to the impression that the United States doesn't care about the region. Finally, having a US policy (regime change) that diverges from the military objective (protecting civilians) is a mistake.
Nevertheless, the decision to move against Gaddafi was the right one. This being the case, I have been somewhat taken aback by the cacophony of voices opposed to military action. Detractors have complained about the mission, the means and the method. They say we don't know who the rebels are, the mission is unclear and the outcome less than certain. This may be true, but they forget about Kosovo. When the United States decided to engage in Kosovo, there were those that said that the mission was unclear. The alliance, thanks to French and Russian opposition, was also in tatters. There were those that said the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) were terrorists. They were against us fighting beside Muslims. And they were uncertain what would happen. I remember all this; I worked in Kosovo during this time. Despite the detractors' fears, a decade later the region is stable. A spent Milosevic took his own life in a jail cell in the Netherlands. Serbia (who we bombed) is an ally. Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro are stable European countries -- and even tourist destinations. Kosovo and Albania are some of the most pro-American Muslim countries in the world.
Listening to all the pundits, I am afraid for America. The world has always employed a "darned if you do, darned if you don't" approach to American foreign policy. This is always unhelpful, but not surprising. Now, I'm afraid that inside the United States it is also becoming the norm. It certainly was during the eight years of Bush 43. This heated rhetoric feels less like love of country, and smells more of political point-scoring. This should be more a time to support our military, applaud the decision to remove a brutal dictator, and gently prod the Obama Administration to rectify the mistakes made. Luckily, for President Obama it's not too late. The American people still deserve their "My Fellow Americans" speech from the Oval Office, explaining the decision to engage. President Obama should go to Congress ex post facto, ask for forgiveness and seek a resolution. Finally, the administration should not worry too much about the Russians and the Chinese, the Bolivarian Alliance (ALBA) countries (led by Venezuela) and the African dictatorships; dictators will always defend their own.
We must remember that we are the country that said, "Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free." And we are the nation whose most important document insists that "...governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." We have the responsibility to live up to these important declarations -- because if we don't, who will?