Shadow Government

Let's not judge Obama's response to Libya too harshly … yet

It is not fair to criticize the Obama administration too harshly for its failure to come up with a single, robust policy regarding the spreading street unrest in the Middle East and North Africa. The administration has been playing catch-up and has often been a step or two behind, but I think that is inevitable when one is confronting revolutionary cascades. Moreover, the region is dotted with very different governments, ranging from friendly autocrats who have been liberalizing (albeit too slowly) to thuggish despots who used almost every tool at their disposal to oppress their people and frustrate U.S. interests in the region. The popular movements rising in the region may share some features in common, but the regimes they are threatening are very different. It would be very hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy that would endure given these conditions.

So I have some sympathy for the way the Obama administration has handled, for instance, the situation in Bahrain. The regime there has supported key U.S. policies over the years, and securing long-term access to the home port of the 5th Fleet is an important U.S. national interest. The ethnic mix in Bahrain is volatile, and the Sunni rulers have good reason to fear Iranian adventurism -- long a staple in the region. For precisely those reasons, however, the administration is right to use its influence to pressure the regime into avoiding bloodshed and accommodating legitimate political grievances of the protesters. Calibrating the pressure and the message is hard, but the core U.S. interests involved are fairly straightforward.

I have less sympathy for the same equivocation with regard to Libya. The Qaddafi regime is no friend of the United States. While Qaddafi did make a major concession on WMD in 2003 on the heels of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is likely that that deal would be honored (or an even better one secured) by any regime installed after its ouster. Moreover, the level of atrocities the regime has inflicted upon the street protesters goes well beyond what the other regional autocrats have done. Full-throated condemnation would seem an easy call for the administration. As former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz notes in a tough column today, the U.S. message has not been all that full-throated, not yet anyway.

The Obama administration needs to do more, but I would not go as far as some who advocate having U.S. forces impose a no-fly zone. I share their outrage at the way Qaddafi had his Air Force strafe defenseless citizens, but involving the U.S. military in this way would constitute a major escalation and it would be hard to walk back if the situation further unraveled. What if Qaddafi shifted to tanks? Would we then be obligated to have our planes destroy the tanks? And without U.N. authorization, the United States would be entirely on its own. Not even our European allies, who otherwise would join in condemning the Qaddafi regime, would approve of U.S. military action without U.N. authorization.

The United States has acted without U.N. authorization before and rightly so, most famously in the Kosovo war of 1999, although there we were joined by all of our NATO allies. (Academics also debate whether the 16 prior UNSC resolutions on Iraq provided adequate legal cover for the 2003 invasion of Iraq or whether the Bush administration needed a 17th.) But in these cases, the action came after considerable diplomatic efforts at the United Nations and elsewhere. Other avenues of pressure were tried and found wanting, and only then was a resort to extraordinary force taken.

As Wolfowitz and others note, there is much the United States can do and pressure other states into doing short of unilateral military actions. The Obama administration should take those steps, and quickly.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Why Obama needs to intervene to save a persecuted Afghan Christian

An imprisoned Afghan citizen, Said Musa, reportedly faces a possible death sentence for the "crime" of converting to Christianity. His plight represents an appalling human rights violation -- and a potentially serious threat to the Obama administration's Afghanistan policy.

Musa's case has thus far not received much attention in the U.S., beyond a few media reports and the valiant alarms raised by religious freedom scholar Paul Marshall. But that may soon be changing, as more and more media, NGOs, and religious groups are learning of his precarious situation. Imprisoned since last summer, Musa has reportedly suffered heinous physical and sexual abuse for his profession of Christian faith. In an eloquent appeal he asks only to be transferred to another prison, and seems steadfast in his faith: "Please, please you should transfer me from this jail to a jail that supervises the believers...I also agree...to sacrifice my life in public [where] I will tell [about my] faith in Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, [so] other believers will take courage and be strong in their faith."   

His case, lamentable in its own right, also touches on two of the Obama administration's vulnerabilities -- a disregard for religious freedom promotion, and inattention to maintaining domestic support for the Afghan war and troop deployment. Over halfway through the administration's term, the position of Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom still remains vacant (in part due to Senate confirmation complications encountered by the administration's nominee, whose qualifications are questionable). Meanwhile, President Obama's reticence to marshal public support for the war might soon be further tested if this case gets broad attention and Americans begin asking why blood and treasure are being spent for a nation that treats Christians this way. American evangelical Protestants have been one of the domestic communities most supportive of the war, and who might be most exercised over Musa's plight.

The Bush administration faced a similar crisis in 2006, when another Afghan convert to Christianity, Abdul Rahman, also faced persecution and potential death. After attracting much international attention, his case was only resolved when he escaped to asylum in Italy, after personal interventions by President Bush, Secretary Rice, and others.

The Obama administration has said little publicly on the Musa case, other than an Embassy Kabul spokesperson expressing concern. I hope that the White House's relative public silence indicates fervent, high-level quiet diplomatic endeavors with the Afghan Government to spare Mr. Musa's life and provide for his freedom -- often these matters are best handled through such behind-the-scenes efforts. But given the administration's overall indifference to religious freedom, I can't help but worry that the case has not yet been a sufficient priority. The kind of priority that demands President Obama's personal involvement.