President Obama's most critical statement tonight was that letting Qaddafi win would have imperilled the nascent democracies in Tunisia and Egypt. "The democratic impulses that are dawning across the region would be eclipsed by the darkest form of dictatorship, as repressive leaders concluded that violence is the best strategy to cling to power."
I can't share the left's cynicism about Obama's motives; I believe that he believes what he said. He believed in democracy in Cairo '09 and he does now. His faith in the movement sweeping the Middle East was paramount in his thinking: he referred to it over and over again tonight.
It is pointed out often that Obama is doing nothing about Bahrain and Yemen, because of the Saudi Arabia interest, and who can dispute that. Even a president has limited powers. "In this particular country -– Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence."
Is his policy hypocritical? Of course. But what about the hypocrisy of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which pressed the landmark Goldstone investigation even as it was ignoring Sri Lanka, where tens of thousands of civilians died? International law is in its early stages of application; of course it is politicized; still, those who support human rights have to support int'l bodies when humanitarian law is fairly applied, as it was to both sides of the Gaza conflict. And the same law was repeatedly cited as a cause for action in Libya, and tonight Obama embraced "universal" rights, such as the freedom of speech.
I've been divided about this intervention because I so despise violence, and in the end I've been supportive; but it seems to me that the error of those on the left who find it so easy to oppose the intervention is that they regard the action as a continuation of colonial and imperialist history. So they chalk it up to the traditional superpowers' pursuit of national interest and treasure. But I think history has changed with the Arab revolutions; that the objects of history became agents of history, and when Obama spoke about the inspiration of Arab youth, he was speaking for all the educated world.
Egypt wasn't just a Time Magazine cover, it was a hinge. The western communications tools that the youth used, from facebook to twitter to CNN, caused western elites to be fully invested in their revolution. The internet has transformed civilization and the traditional power structure as the printing press once did; and Obama's abandonment of Mubarak is the proof. The revolutions are a landmark in the growing influence of international law and communications.
Now the Libyan rebellion also has a face: Iman al-Obeidi, the incredibly brave rape victim in Tripoli who sought out the western cameras out of faith that the world would do the right thing. When Obama spoke of atrocities tonight, he was resonating with the international outrage at her treatment.
And the doctrine he laid out at the end of his speech, a summons to the world to intervene when human dignity is at stake, reflected his own values; he married a woman whose dissertation at Princeton was about the alienation of "blackness" in a liberal white world.
I'm stirred by the speech because I think its ultimate impact will be on Palestine. In fact, I think Obama is conscious of its Palestinian application. Again and again he made statements tonight– massacre, atrocities, freedom of speech, universal rights, "the writ" of the U.N. Security Council, 40+ years of tyranny, the rights of refugees, the support of the Arab League, America's "unique ability" to have an effect– that apply to the Palestinian experience.
These words will have great consequences. You cannot build a coalition that includes Turkey without taking on Turkey's human-rights agenda: Gaza. You cannot act on behalf of the Arab League without addressing the statelessness of Palestinians. You can't prevent a massacre in Benghazi without establishing a red line against wanton Israeli violence. As Gilbert Achcar writes:
One can safely bet that the present intervention in Libya will prove most embarrassing for imperialist powers in the future. As those members of the US establishment who opposed their country's intervention rightly warned, the next time Israel's air force bombs one of its neighbours, whether Gaza or Lebanon, people will demand a no-fly zone. I, for one, definitely will. Pickets should be organized at the UN in New York demanding it. We should all be prepared to do so, with now a powerful argument.
I think religious forces can be more powerful than imperialist forces, and Israel/Palestine is one such example. Obama is muzzled and hogtied by the Israel lobby in American political life (Moshe Shoked savagely likens it to the Elders of Zion in Haaretz) and Obama is doing what he can to subvert its power– by building an international coalition around the principle of human rights in the Middle East. He too is on facebook, appealing for international help.