Adrian Hamilton: Obama is wise to keep his distance

International Studies

Thursday 24 March 2011 01:00

Spare a thought for President Obama as he tours Latin America while being questioned about Libya. At home he's widely accused of indecision and pusillanimity. Over here (and that includes British ministers) he's criticised for dithering.

The people who wanted intervention say his reluctance has made it all far later than it should have been or needed to be. Those who never wanted western involvement gleefully point to the way that the alliance is now falling apart. And the US President, poor man, is left trying to divest himself of the leadership of a military exercise he'd rather someone else directed.

But be fair. Think what would have happened if Washington had taken the lead in declaring a no-fly-zone over Libya without UN agreement or Arab backing. The people now criticising him for dilatoriness would be accusing him of being another Bush. And if he'd refused to have anything to do with the no-fly-zone, commentators in Europe and the Middle East would be saying that it was because, at the end of the day, America doesn't want democracy in the Arab world, that it prefers the rulers of Bahrain and Yemen to suppress revolt than bow before it. There may well be some truth to this – and to the more pragmatic charge that allowing, as Obama has, his administration to be openly divided on the issue hardly helps US standing in the world.

But then look at the UK military and ministers publicly taking different stands on whether one of the war aims can be to attack Colonel Gaddafi personally. Or look at the rows between the French and German foreign ministers over German reluctance to participate in the action. The fact is that the western allies, never mind the Arab League and the UN Security Council, are divided over Libyan intervention, and we might as well admit it.

Obama's cautious approach is perfectly sensible. Libya is not America's dogfight. Thanks in large part to Lockerbie, Washington has never favoured Gaddafi. It is, in US eyes, and rightly, a European problem. It was France and Britain – Sarkozy and Blair – who spent their time sucking up so obscenely to the Libyan dictator, just as Silvio Berlusconi embraced him in a Faustian pact to stop illegal migration from Africa. Washington under President George W Bush certainly welcomed Gaddafi's dramatic (and largely meaningless) gesture of giving up nuclear ambitions – but they didn't sell their souls to him in the way we, and the French, did.

Nor can Washington be blamed for being forced into military command of the first phase of the Libyan operation by the simple fact that it is only the US that has the hardware and control systems to do it. French objections to this becoming a Nato exercise are just so much hot air. They can't do it, nor can the British in alliance with them.

Obama is also right to spell out, as he did this week, a clear separation between the objectives of the UN resolution, which is to protect Libyan civilians, and the objectives of American policy, which is to see the back of the Colonel.

David Cameron and William Hague were quite wrong to suggest that the two were all part and parcel of the broad remit sanctioned by the UN. They aren't. The great achievement of the UN Security vote – and one that took many of us by surprise – was that it was in the UN, carried by a majority vote with no vetos, and had the support of the Arab League.

That may have owed something to the diplomacy and arm-twisting of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy but the chief impulse came from the actions of Colonel Gaddafi. Once he had turned the military tide and was openly threatening, by word as well as deed, to wreak his wrath on the rebels in Benghazi, the world couldn't stand by and watch a massacre. Memories of Srebrenica and Rwanda are too raw for western politicians to allow it to happen again. And even Beijing and Moscow could see that stopping intervention in these circumstances would be tantamount to complicity in the consequences. That's as far as it goes, however. Military action has already achieved what most of those who voted for it intended. It has stopped Gaddafi's forces in their tracks. It couldn't have been done without UN sanction. That would have sucked the Europeans, and America, straight into a quagmire with the charge of neo-colonialist intentions. It shouldn't be extended to regime change now. That would be embroiling the international community in taking sides in a civil war.

No, if we want to see Gaddafi go – a sight dearly to be wished – then we have to promote it by the old-fashioned and non-military means of squeezing diplomatically and economically. He needs to sell oil. He needs to move money and buy equipment. Europe can take the lead in that.

Japan's limit of tolerance

Libya may have wiped Japan off the newscasts (BBC News 24 over the weekend covered only Libya) but the story is far from over. Indeed, the reports from the nuclear power station get worse. Every time the government and the company come out with a statement of reassurance, plumes of smoke are seen rising from Fukushima. Levels of radiation in the air and the sea go up, and enter the food chain.

What the Japanese feel about this we don't really know. They're a reserved people. But can we at least hear less of this guff about their obedience and tolerance of setback? Conformist their culture may be, but the Japanese are the same as the rest of us. They worry about their children and know when they're being flanneled by the authorities. Politics in Japan will never be the same after this.

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