Libya: Did Citizen Evacuations Stand in the Way of Better Policy?
It now seems to be the conventional wisdom (hard to shake once in place) that the U.S. has been slow off the mark on Libya. That may have consequences for U.S. standing in the region. As long-time Middle East hand Aaron David Miller put it in a tweet this morning: “the arab spring isn’t mainly our story; but president obama is now seen by arab democrats and autocrats alike as a weak friend and foe.”
The Administration got a defense out (on background) that it held off on more decisive action — such as imposing the sanctions that were finally put in place last night — pending the evacuation from Libya of U.S. citizens, U.S. diplomats in particular. As always, safety of U.S. citizens is said to be the highest priority in such unstable situations. Apparently, the U.S. embassy compound in Tripoli is poorly secured, with no Marine guards in place to defend. (Vulnerability of nationals in Libya is also now being floated as a reason why other countries are not yet on board with UN sanctions.)
That’s a tough place to be. Obviously you don’t want to end up in a hostage situation (the politics of that would be horrific for Obama in addition to all the other reasons — the Carter comparison perfected). But does it have to be the case that U.S. policy itself is held hostage?
Perhaps the lesson here is to have contingency plans in place to pull U.S. officials out of such situations quickly (as of today, think Sanaa, Libreville, Yaounde, among others). That would have the downside of leaving other U.S. citizens without exit assistance, at least not in place. But many of them are taken care of by their corporate employers. Many others will be dual nationals, and only nominally American, and should be able to fend for themselves as well as locals. (State’s P.J. Crowley seemed implicitly to make this point in an early briefing on the question.) In any case the safety of the few has compromised the global effectiveness of the whole.