President Obama's conviction that American power must be harnessed to the predilections of other countries continues to be his predominant presidential trait, even if he has resorted to strong unilateral shows of force at times when other options have seemed in short supply (e.g. the killing of pirates who kidnapped Americans, the Afghan "surge").
Now, in the midst of massive uprisings against autocratic regimes in the Arab world, Obama's ambivalence toward America's superpower status has become dangerously manifest. Whether or not Obama becomes comfortable with the exercise of U.S. power may determine if large parts of the world become more hospitable, whether the U.S. becomes safer and more prosperous, or whether multitudes die with no discernibly better outcome.
Despite his amazing rise to power, Barack Obama clings to beliefs that are rare and, frankly, shocking for an American president to hold: namely, that America is a deeply flawed nation that lacks the moral authority to wield disproportionate global influence.
On his first world tour Obama apologized on three continents for America's "arrogance," its tendency to "dictate its own terms," its "unwillingness to listen," and its refusal to embrace the Muslim world.
The president has been careful to disguise his effort to navigate America to a more modest place among nation states, sprinkling his speeches with boilerplate odes to America's greatness, even indulging occasionally in a bit of nationalist saber-rattling. "There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified," Obama told the United Nations in 2009. But Obama never offers a robust defense of American power without subordinating it to the more pressing matter of leveling the global playing field. "But it is my deeply held belief," Obama said in that same speech, "that in the year 2009 ... the interests of nations and peoples are shared."
The president's refusal to take the lead in the overthrow of the acutely anti-American regime of Col. Moammar Gaddafi represents the most ominous sign thus far of Obama's preference for strengthening the "international community" over any narrowly defined national interest. It may have caused his own Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare that she would not serve under him beyond the 2012 election. Clinton was said to be especially disappointed with Obama's refusal to back a no-fly zone over Libya.
When allied forces finally decided to strike Gaddafi by air, Obama gave his reluctant approval by phone from Brazil. He also authorized his top commander on the ground, Admiral Mike Mullen, to tell reporters that the goals of the international campaign "are limited and it isn't about seeing him go."
European leaders and diplomats were bewildered at Obama's reticence over removing the notorious dictator from power. After all, Gaddafi was the sponsor of the 1988 terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 179 American civilians. Immediately after the French and British commenced to establish a no fly zone over Libya, Foreign Policy magazine quoted a European diplomat: "Frankly we are just completely puzzled. We are wondering if this is a priority for the United States."
Europe's confusion over Obama's motives is understandable. On Tuesday, March 22, the White House issued a statement underscoring its commitment to "installing a democratic system." But later that same day Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, issued a clarifying statement "that the effort of our military operation is not regime change."
The opportunity to finally remove Gaddafi has presented itself to a president that can't articulate any specific national interest in doing so, or at least one that's worth putting sufficient U.S. military force behind. Instead Obama has couched his tepid support for military action in selfless humanitarianism backed by ineffectual one-worldism. From Brazil Obama stated that "We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy."
Libya is not primarily a human rights issue. If it was, Obama would consider putting "boots on the ground" to ensure the safety of civilians in a battle with no clear boundaries. Instead, Obama has taken pains to rule out ground troops and to explain that the U.S. will be pulling back from its role in the international campaign.
This is not, first, an issue of democracy and freedom either. It is not known whether rebel forces are dominated by Muslim extremists, are backed by Al Qaida, or are even popular and representative.
The issue is whether the U.S. should use military force to overthrow a decades-old enemy who carries the blood of American innocents on his hands. Before the Lockerbie attack, Libyan operatives bombed a Berlin disco in 1986, killing two U.S. servicemen and injuring 200 others.
But Obama can't see the U.S. as a victim of Muslim extremism. He dithers because he believes the U.S. is, in part, responsible for the anti-American animus of the Islamic world. In an interview with 60 Minutes in 2008, Obama stated that the Bush administration's policy of military action, harsh interrogation methods, and the Guantanamo Bay prison is what has led to Muslim anger. "It hasn't made us safer. What it has been is a great advertisement for anti-American sentiment." Thus Obama's insistence that Arab governments play a central role in any possible military action. It took less than a week for the Arab League to insist that ally bombing missions be curtailed.
For Obama, the goal is not to ensure the ouster of a sworn enemy; it is "about supporting the United Nations resolution, which talked to limiting or eliminating his [Gaddafi's] ability to kill his own people." Admiral Mullen even admitted to ABC's David Gregory that the administration feels the mission can be accomplished without removing Gaddafi. "That's certainly, potentially, one outcome," Mullen said when Gregory pressed him."
Obama believes that the diminution of American power relative to other nations will recalibrate a global imbalance of power with deep roots in the military aggression, racism, greed, and avarice of the western world. Because of this he has until now declined to use sufficient American power to cashier an enemy whose presence defiles the memory of Americans needlessly lost. The country stands by confusedly hoping the French have the will power to carry thins thing through, and watching as Obama shepherds the world into a new, post-American epoch.
Seth Forman is author of Change has Come: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama (forthcoming, Booklocker), and blogs at www.mrformansplanet.com.