In his Cairo address to the Muslim world in 2009, President Obama declared that "governments (should) reflect the will of the people" and promised to support human rights "everywhere."
As Libyans rise up to overthrow their dictator of 42 years, U.S. credibility is on the line. Libyans see White House inaction as indifference to slaughter. Imagery matters in the Middle East. A month after his Cairo speech, Obama sought out Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on the sidelines of the summit in Italy of the Group of Eight major industrial nations. Libyan television suggested the handshake was White House endorsement of Gadhafi's rule.
Obama's supporters may say America's influence is in decline, but it need not be: Libyans seek U.S. assistance.
Rather than turn a deaf ear, Obama should take action: First, he should order U.S. fighter jets based in Sicily and on Mediterranean aircraft carriers to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Libya. Not only would this prevent Libyan planes from again strafing civilians, but it would also enable safer evacuation of non-Libyans.
If Gadhafi's henchmen continue their slaughter, Obama might impose no-drive zones for military vehicles and leaflet Gadhafi's units, warning them that further violence might lead to war crimes trials. Obama should not emulate former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan who, as head of peacekeeping, stood aside during Rwanda's genocide. Leafleting also reinforces to the Libyan people that America stands with them.
Preserving Gadhafi's rule is inane: He continues to embrace terror. During his first trip to Europe after striking a deal on the Lockerbie bombing compensation, he threatened that failure to accept his new demands might lead Libya "back to those days where we bomb our cars or put explosive belts ... around our women." In January 2008, Iraqi officials accused his son Seif al-Islam of sponsoring a group of suicide bombers in their country.
After North Korea and Turkmenistan, Libya is the most totalitarian state on earth. Libyans deserve better. If Obama intercedes to protect them, he might find benefit in their gratitude. Perhaps moral clarity should be Obama's new realism.