George W. Bush was not popular (except when and where he was popular) while Barack Obama is adored (except when and where he is not). I get the sense that Obama’s base of international support, such as it is, comes mostly from the feeling that Obama won’t cause trouble around the world as Bush did, or supposedly did. The United States during the Bush years was too activist, too powerful, too “imperial.” Obama has replaced action with words, and unilateralism with followership.
I was never particularly thrilled with the idea, nor am I satisfied with the result. Leon Wieseltier at The New Republic—a man who voted for Obama, as I did not—doesn’t appear to be either.
“This violence must stop.” So President Obama declared the other day about the depravity in Tripoli. This “must” is a strange mixture of stridency and passivity. It is the deontic locution familiar from the editorial pages of newspapers, where people who have no power to change the course of events demand that events change their course. This “must” denotes an order, or a permission, or an obligation, or a wish, or a will. It does not denote a plan. It includes no implication, no expectation, of action. It is the rhetoric of futility: this infection must stop, this blizzard must stop, this madness must stop. But this infection, this blizzard, this madness, like this violence, will not stop, because its logic is to grow. It will stop only if it is stopped. Must the murder of his own people by this madman stop, Mr. President? Then stop it.
There are various ways in which the horror can be brought to an end. Is a no-fly zone really too complicated to negotiate? Then let NATO planes fly over Tripoli to shoot down any Libyan aircraft that make war on the Libyan population. Is the United States really prevented by its past from deploying the small number of troops that would be required to rescue Tripoli from Qaddafi’s bloody grip? Then let a multilateral expeditionary force be raised and a humanitarian intervention be launched to free Libya from its tyrant and then leave Libya to the Libyans. Europeans, Africans, even Egyptians may join the campaign. And impose sanctions; and freeze assets; and summon The Hague. There is no lack of proposals for acting against this monster out of Tacitus. But the president is not yet interested in action. His outrage seems to be satisfied by “consultations” with our “allies and partners,” and with the Human Rights Council in Geneva next Monday. Yes, next Monday: what’s the rush? The main point of Obama’s statement on Libya was that “the nations and peoples of the world speak with one voice,” and that “we join with the international community to speak with one voice.” He is calling for words! He actually said that “the whole world is watching,” that foul old slogan of the bystander.