Once upon a time a nutty despot who threatened to kill Americans could expect to see a warship in his harbor the next morning (or soon thereafter). But that’s so 20th century. Now the president has reduced himself to pleading for Gabon, Upper Volta, San Marino and the principality of Monaco to help us get a strong letter of protest through the United Nations.
In truth, President Obama couldn’t send a proper naval display to Tripoli or Benghazi even if he could borrow enough courage from the typing pool to do it. The big warships have been diverted elsewhere; the carrier Enterprise is cruising somewhere in the Indian Ocean, far from Libya. Only after the European Union said it was safe to go near the water, the president agreed to send “air and naval units” to join the fighting Europeans.
The president obviously won’t go near the typing pool and the White House closet where courage and resolute confidence have been put on the shelf. True grit might be contagious. Feckless is the default position of this White House. George W. Bush is said to have remarked of his successor, at the end of a White House briefing for him soon after he was elected: “This guy just doesn’t have a clue.” The freshman from Chicago had proved that every day since.
Hopey-change is no longer working even for some of those who want to believe in the messiah. “The Obama administration behaves as if the weight of the United States in world affairs is approximately the same as that of Switzerland,” complains the pundit Christopher Hitchens. “We await developments. We urge caution, even restraint. We hope for the formation of an international consensus.” Indeed. Cynicism, which wouldn’t be so bad, has given way to credulity, which is dangerously bad. The White House can’t even figure out who Moammar Gadhafi really is, the Libyan warrior with the novel strategy of shooting, bombing and strafing his own people. Reporters at the State Department tried to pin down the administration spokesman last week over the who and the what of the madman of Libya.
“Is Gadhafi a dictator?” one scribe asked.
“Are you stumped?”
“No, I am not stumped.”
“So what’s your answer to the question?”
“I don’t think he came to office through a democratic process.”
No one expects much from the State Department, the redoubt of the weak, the decrepit and of impotence enthroned. But even Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary and one of the few grown-ups tolerated in the Obama administration, seemed comfortable in the impotence mode. When a reporter at the Pentagon asked about the options under consideration for actually dealing with the situation, Mr. Gates replied: “I think that, you know, as I say, it’s a very fast-moving situation, and we’re obviously meeting two or three times a day on these things.”
What the “situation” pleads for is fewer “meetings” and a little action. When the president got around to talking for the first time about the “situation” he boasted that his “national-security team” had been working around the clock, in more meetings, and had produced “a full range of options” requiring still more meetings. His message was something a high-school junior might have prepared for a citizenship essay. There was nothing to give the evil colonel in Tripoli even mild heartburn. The presidential teleprompter burped, flashed and crashed. “The United States strongly supports the universal rights of the Libyan people, and that includes the rights of peaceful assembly, free speech and the ability of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny,” he said, followed by more high-sounding blah, blah, blah.
The White House put out the story that the president was afraid to say very much until the last of the Americans had escaped on a ferryboat that was delayed leaving Tripoli because it was raining. The British, on the other hand, yielded to no such excuse or qualm. They dispatched two warships early on, the HMS Cumberland and HMS York, and several Hercules transports of the RAF to execute an “extremely complex” rescue from an airport in Benghazi, taking into account but not deterred by the prospect of challenging Libya’s air-defense system. Once in Malta, the rescued were fed, put through customs and immigration procedures and taken to hotels for overnight rest before flying out to London the next morning.
The British response inevitably reminded old-timers of Ronald Reagan’s bold rescue of similarly threatened American students in Grenada 30 years ago. That was an earlier time. We’re more sophisticated now. We’ve even got a president who can speak a little French. But hopey-changy stinks in any language.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.