Yemen’s security forces have killed more than three dozen protesters in the last few days. Gaddafi has announced that Allied efforts to destroy his anti-missile defenses are a form of terrorism, and as a consequence, he is prepared to decimate the rebels in Libya. It seems to me that it is time to ask a question that haunts the history of our time: Are there limits to dictatorial power?
Since the Holocaust, the international community has given lip service to the idea that mass murder by dictatorial leaders should never be tolerated. Yet remarkably there are instances in Africa and Asia where this is common practice. In the Arab world, where sharia prevails the killing of apostates is a routine practice.
Based on recent events, it would appear that conditions across the globe are sliding back to a barbaric period in which murder of one’s own people for the retention of power is permitted or at least ignored. The argument is we cannot possibly intervene whenever atrocities occur. Or perhaps more logically, sovereignty trumps atrocity.
It is instructive that U.S. State Department officials employed the latter position for a time by suggesting we should not insinuate ourselves into a Libyan civil war. In other words, however sanguinary the attacks may have been and continue to be, there is not a justifiable role for the U.S. Needless to say, that position has been modified by our stance on the “no-fly zone.”
As I see it, the basic Obama foreign policy thrust is based on an incremental U.S. withdrawal from regional influence. The withdrawal, I should hastily note, is both emotional—an unwillingness to defend our interests and our allies—and physical—a drawdown of troops based on the belief we cannot afford these foreign ventures.
That strategic version, or lack thereof, has created a situation in which our enemies believe we are ineffectual and our allies believe we are untrustworthy. Instead of hastening to carve out a defensive stance for the U.S., one that recognizes our foreign interests, the administration has decided to channel our foreign policy through the United Nations. In doing so, the leverage that emerged in the past from the assertion of national power is lost. We are at sea as one nation in an international armada that has lost its way.
The new concept of America opting out of unilateral action has implications for nations with imperial goals. Iran has become the “strong horse” in the Middle East neighborhood by default. Our emerging position encouraged its evolution. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset once noted, “To create a concept is to leave reality behind.” Our concept of multilateralism is a chimera surrounded by a fantasy.
Winston Churchill warned that the democracies that had triumphed in World War II, “were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.” It seems we are at it yet again.
We watch with horror as power-hungry barbarians kill their own people. But we generally tolerate these actions. We are overcome by the magnitude of evil and the inversion of certitudes, but are helpless in their wake. We seek fresh creeds, but do not know how to deal with the revulsion in our collective gut. And all the while our leaders tell us this will pass and, after all, there is nothing we can do.
Is the world turning to savagery? Is the 1930s a scenario for the new century? Are we to allow shamefacedly the death and horror we have the capability to prevent? The derision of death lurks in our imagination, but the will to reverse it has not emerged. America cannot police the world, but the U.S. is still the only anchor that can assure international stability. It seems to me that role must be recognized and given the attention history has placed on it.