This morning’s BBC features this headline “Libya: US urges tough United Nations resolution.” One can only imagine the rueful reaction to that headline in Benghazi, where rebels wait while the forces of Muammar Gaddafi close in, or in Tripoli, where Gaddafi and his bloodthirsty supporters must be laughing at an international community that has done little to prevent him from crushing the rebellion. Given what has happened over the past few weeks, this headline on a Reuters story may be more apt: “Leaders dither as Gaddafi hails final showdown.”
The reality is that urging “tough” United Nations resolutions doesn’t mean much in the face of guns and mercenaries. And saying that a foreign leader should leave doesn’t mean much, either. The days when pronouncements of American presidents left people quaking in their boots are long since over. If there is no resolve to take actions, words ring hollow — but even meaningless words and lack of action nevertheless can have negative consequences.
If, as now appears likely, Gaddafi survives the rebellion and executes or imprisons all of those who defied him, what message has been sent? If you live under an authoritarian regime and are considering a rebellion, the message is loud and clear — you might get a pat on the head from the ever-debating members of the U.N., but don’t expect much more than that. If you are Hugo Chavez, or Robert Mugabe, or the leadership of Iran, you realize that there isn’t much stomach for confrontation, and perhaps you decide to conduct your affairs even more recklessly. And if you are Israel, or some other pro-Western government in a volatile region, you begin to calculate your chances of survival if American words aren’t backed up with deeds and you adjust your policies accordingly.
I’m not saying that America should intervene militarily in every foreign policy crisis or act as the world’s policeman. I am saying, however, America should zealously guard whatever is left of its credibility and not issue pronouncements unless it is willing to back them up.