Libya: A Dangerous Precedent?

I’ve been muted in critiquing the Obama administration’s cautious response to uprisings in the Middle East, mostly because it hasn’t been clear to me that a more aggressive course would have been better. At Commentary, Peter Wehner makes the most persuasive case I’ve seen that the administration has been weak, and that the consequences are dangerous:

According to a story in Sunday’s Washington Post, as President Obama and his advisers measured their response to the mass killing in Libya, they were mindful of the fact that diplomats in Tripoli had told them, in the words of one official, that “certain kinds of messaging from the American government could endanger the security of American citizens.”
“Overruling that kind of advice would be a very difficult and dangerous thing to do,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “That was the debate, and frankly we erred on the side of caution, for certain, and at the cost of some criticism,” he continued. “But when you’re sitting in government and you’re told that ignoring that advice could endanger American citizens, that’s a line you don’t feel very comfortable crossing.”
The Obama administration’s position assumes that Muammar Qaddafi needs a pretext to kill Americans. He actually doesn’t. He has done so in the past, and he could just as easily do so now, regardless of what kind of “messaging” emerges from our government.
Beyond that, as Christopher Hitchens points out, the leaders of nations far less powerful than the United States, many with large expatriate populations in Libya, took much more forceful (and much earlier) stances against Qaddafi than did Obama. The president was the last major Western leader to speak up on Libya.
On a more fundamental level, what the Obama administration did was create quite a dangerous precedent. It has now signaled to the most malevolent regimes in the world that the way to delay (or perhaps even avoid) American condemnation, let alone American action, is to threaten the lives of American citizens. …
There were, of course, other options available to the president, including informing Mr. Qaddafi through the appropriate channels that a terrible fate would await him and his pack of jackals if a single American was harmed (see here). The president did very nearly the opposite. He showed weakness, irresolution, fear.

I’m not sure if it’s fear, exactly. No doubt President Obama’s caution results in part from the fact that he is in way over his head, and knows it. But beyond that, my sense is that he doesn’t want the United States to be a world leader. He believes, as he has said, in British exceptionalism and Greek exceptionalism, and he is content to let others lead while the U.S. hangs back in the pack. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially in the context of Libya, where Europe is much closer to the scene than we are, and several European countries, most notably Great Britain, have good reason to feel guilty about their relations with Qaddafi’s regime.
Still, the rest of the world expects the United States to lead, and if Obama thinks he can avoid either blame or the consequences of whatever disasters might unfold in the region by being passive, he is mistaken.