Bush, Reagan... Obama?

Can we mention Obama in the same breath as Ronald Reagan? He'd have to get Gaddafi first..

Can we mention Obama in the same breath?
Will James
On 23 May 2011 07:05

OK, let me start by saying that this isn’t a declaration of support for “Obama 2012”. I share many of the concerns and disappointments about Barack Obama’s stewardship in the White House, and would have much preferred to have seen a McCain presidency.

At home, Obama has misinterpreted his mandate, imposed an unwelcome healthcare system on the American public – indeed, it is striking how hostile moderate Democrats, not just independents and Republicans, have been to Obamacare – and has been too slow confronting the vast debt problem in the American economy.

In the realm of foreign policy, Obama has shown a combination of Jimmy Carter style weakness and Adlai Stevenson style naivety in the face of challenges from abroad. His inaugural declaration that he would sit down -– unconditionally -– with America’s enemies was as foolish as it was damaging.

Obama’s prevarication during 2009 undermined America’s Afghan policy and weakened key regional alliances, whilst his half-way house solution of introducing a ”surge” but with a withdrawal date attached has only served to dilute NATO’s resolve whilst strengthening the Taliban’s.

A number of traditional US allies –- Japan, Israel, the UK and others –- have seen their years of close friendship with the US devalued under a President who seems more interested in making placatory gestures to the likes of Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao. And in his desperate attempt to prove how different he is to his immediate predecessor the US effort in Iraq is fast becoming America’s “forgotten war”, with all the resulting dangers to international security that that entails.

With those qualifications, however, it is undeniable that President Obama should be congratulated for his leadership in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.

Few could disagree with US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who said that Obama’s decision was “a very gutsy call.... [T]his is one of the most courageous calls -– decisions -– that I think I’ve ever seen a president make”. The President could have ordered a targeted missile strike, which would have risked innocent casualties.

He could have insisted on waiting for definitive intelligence, and risked bin Laden slipping away. He could have stuck to diplomatic niceties and given Pakistan’s authorities prior notice, increasing the likelihood that rogue elements in the ISI would forewarn bin Laden. Instead, Obama made the biggest decision of his presidency and ordered the covert Special Forces operation that ended the hunt for the world’s most notorious mass murderer.

In his autobiography, George W. Bush stated that the failure to capture or kill Osama bin Laden was “unfinished business” and the “fact we did not ranks among my great regrets.” However, President Obama has an almost unique opportunity of completing the “unfinished business” of not one, but two former Republican presidents.

If he is willing to apply the same resolve that he showed in orchestrating the bin Laden raid to the ongoing operations in Libya, Obama could finish the job started by President Ronald Reagan, who tried –- yet failed -– to end the murderous dictatorship of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

When Reagan launched ‘Operation El Dorado Canyon’ against the Libyan leader in 1986 -– following Libyan state-terrorism that targeted US servicemen at a Berlin discotheque –- the US came tantalisingly close to ending the “Mad Dog’s” rule in North Africa.

Unfortunately, however, Obama seems reluctant to follow Reagan’s example and fully press home his advantage against the delusional “Brother Leader”. Current operations in Libya are hamstrung by American timidity.  The US is unwilling to target the “command-and-control” infrastructure in Tripoli prosecuting a brutal and unjust war against its own people: namely Colonel Gaddafi himself.

UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which underpins the Libya mission, was a legalistic hotchpotch that authorised “all necessary measures... to protect civilians” whilst “excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

Obama’s fears of stoking opposition in the Arab world mixed with hang-ups over the possibility people might start drawing parallels to Bush-era policies of ‘regime-change’ have led to a miserable stalemate. Two months into the NATO air-campaign, with thousands of allied bombing missions and scores of innocent civilians killed by Gaddafi’s thugs, there is yet still no end in sight, and the situation remains hopelessly deadlocked.

NATO and the opposition fighters on the ground notch up the occasional success (the recent RAF raid which destroyed Gaddafi’s naval assets for example, or the capture of Misrata airport), and the Gaddafi regime is under intense external and internal pressure, with its forces suffering ongoing and gradual physical and psychological degradation.

However, this cannot disguise the fact that the conflict has entered a prolonged standoff that can only be overcome if the Western alliance, with full US support, announces clear objectives for the conclusion of the war. This must include the explicit removal – by force if necessary – of the Gaddafi mafia from Libyan political life.

Continued stalemate only serves to further regional instability, leads to more death and suffering for innocent Libyan civilians and undermines confidence in the West’s determination to protect people from humanitarian abuses the world over. Obama has already revealed his ability to finish the job started by George W. Bush; will he now go one step further and conclude Ronald Reagan’s “unfinished business” from 1986?

Will James is a political analyst and freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @wmhjames

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