Not on Obama’s Watch: President takes stand for human rights in Libya

American-led forces unleashed a fury of missile strikes on Libyan installations this week, plunging the United States into a third Middle Eastern conflict and signaling the emergence of President Barack Obama’s own distinct foreign policy doctrine. In a shift away from the quagmire of mishaps that defined his predecessor’s foray into the Middle East, Obama appears to be taking a firm stance in defense of human rights and seems willing to place American military power between brutal dictators and their victims.

The strategy reflects many of the lessons learned from Bill Clinton’s presidency. Clinton has often said one of his greatest regrets was not stepping in soon enough to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. Consequently, it is no surprise to learn that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, President Clinton’s Africa adviser during the genocide, spearheaded the White House’s policy turnaround on Libya last week. Obama clearly wants to prevent Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi from exterminating his own people.

Though slow and lacking clarity, the administration’s response to the uprising in Libya represents everything that was missing in the hastened 2003 invasion of Iraq. American diplomats skillfully obtained unanimous consent from the United Nations Security Council without misleading them, built an actual multilateral coalition and — most importantly — waited for clear support from the Arab League. If America is faced with the decision to place men and women in harm’s way, these are the precautions that should be taken.

What the administration has failed to do is communicate its reasoning to the American public. It has sent out conflicting messages with no clear end game. Last week, Obama unequivocally said Gaddafi must be removed. This week, administration officials narrowly defined the mission, stating military forces will act in accordance with UN Resolution 1973 to implement a no-fly zone and prevent further atrocities. While Obama remains steadfast on Gaddafi’s removal, the president is pursuing a policy that will probably lead to a stalemate.

Though regime change is the goal, Obama should have refrained from demanding Gaddafi’s removal. Regime change is up to the people of Libya — not the U.S. government. Despite support from the Arab League, the risk still exists for the strikes to be viewed as Western imperial aggression, which could consolidate support for Gaddafi among his remaining followers.

To make matters even more complicated, the United States could be creating another power vacuum in the Middle East for radicals to fill. State Department officials have no idea who they should be negotiating with in the rebel faction. As seen in Iraq when coalition forces dispersed the Ba’ath Party, removing a brutal dictator means nothing if there is no one to replace the previous regime.

The effectiveness of the campaign remains to be seen. Obama may have the bigger picture right – America has a moral obligation to prevent genocide – but applying this doctrine in the Middle East is not easy. Intervening every time an Arab leader oppresses his people would stretch the American military even thinner.

This situation provides the Obama administration a trial run for the president’s new doctrine. Obama’s verbose rhetoric works against Gaddafi, but could be far more problematic when aimed at longtime allies like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The president’s true resolve has yet to be tested. For once, America is aligned with the Arab world, and it should not let this opportunity slip away.

America is now faced with leading a coalition comprised of numerous nations with divergent interests. As seen throughout the ‘90s, similar problems plagued America’s interventions in Somalia and the Balkans. If Obama is looking for a historical figure for guidance, he should follow in the footsteps of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who successfully pushed for a NATO bombing campaign to end the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Blair recognized that in an increasingly interdependent world all nations are responsible for stemming the tide of oppressive regimes.

From the killing fields of Cambodia to the mass graves of Bosnia, nearly every president has vowed to never again idly stand on the sidelines as innocent civilians are systematically massacred because of their race, religion or political beliefs. Yet time and time again, good men and women have averted their eyes. Obama should not do the same.

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