Obama’s Political Fears Led to Libya Indecision? by Horace Cooper

cooper_smFreedom is flourishing in the Middle East. Popular movements against dictators and monarchs from Tunis to Tehran prove the doctrine of the Reagan and Bush presidencies to promote freedom and democracy abroad was a sound investment.

Unfortunately, President Obama may have done his predecessors’ work a disservice with his reluctance to engage. He was late to the game in supporting the mostly peaceful Egyptian revolution, and his similar tardiness with Libya — where Muammar Gaddafi’s violent response virtually obliterated the opposition before Obama stepped in (without the congressional involvement he once promised and his Vice President once insisted upon1).

While Obama has seemed really busy with his NCAA brackets2, Motown celebrations3 and foreign visits, it raises the question of whether his neglect of the Libyan crisis might really be rooted in a fear of causing a political uprising among his allies domestically.

Of all governments, it was France that stepped up to be the champion of the Libyan revolution. It was the first Western nation to recognize Gaddafi’s opposition as Libya’s legitimate government4. The Arab League, of which Libya is a member, endorsed a Libyan no-fly zone5 to curtail Gaddafi’s domination of the skies and his bombing raids that have targeted homes, mosques and at least one hospital.6

Conversely, the Obama Administration reacted to the actions of others.

Returning the Marines “to the shores of Tripoli” to fight alongside the rebels is neither a sound nor popular idea. It’s different from Iraq, when there was the compelling factor of weapons of mass destruction. After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Gaddafi voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions.

But it is apparent America hasn’t done everything it could to promote regime change in Libya. It was the Arab League’s willingness to turn on a fellow member that appeared to be the game changer to get the United States involved.7 That, and the approval of the United Nations. Withdrawing our ambassador and limited sanctions were also a nice touch.8

What didn’t help in the early days was Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s March 10 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in which he said: “I think over the longer term that the [Gaddafi] regime will prevail.”9

But now we are committed.

Why was Obama so timid on Libya? Why, for instance, was his February 23 denouncement of Libyan violence devoid of direct criticism of Muammar Gaddafi?10 What kind of example is it setting? David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, explains the possible worldwide repercussions:

Europeans who invested so much hope in Barack Obama may hesitate to accept the news that their man is not the idealist they had imagined. But Arab leaders have already got the message: Mubarak was a fool, don’t resign in the face of protests, instead use force. The king of Bahrain has learnt the lesson of Libya: he is importing Saudi troops to suppress local protesters.11

Obama’s less-than-activist foreign policy has had a particularly light touch when it comes to the Arab world. Since the White House remains enigmatic about its Libya policy, it’s fair to wonder if Obama may be less concerned about a military or diplomatic defeat in Libya than a political defeat in America next year. In particular, might his hand be guided more out of fear of losing the support of influential black political leaders who have supported or received the support of the Gaddafi regime?

Consider Alabama’s 7th congressional district as a microcosm of Obama’s potential dilemma. In 1997, then-Representative Earl Hilliard (D), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, travelled to Libya on the dime of a company owned by a Tunisian businessman seeking to open Libyan-U.S. trade. Hilliard, who reportedly met “every member of [Gaddafi’s] cabinet” while there, declared U.S. trade sanctions against Libya at the time “stupid” and a fellow congressman who was critical of his trip a “racist.”12

Hilliard lost his seat in a primary to the more conservative Artur Davis (D) in 2002. Davis made an issue of Hilliard’s Libya trip. In 2009, Davis himself earned the wrath of Jesse Jackson when Davis opposed Obamacare. At a CBC Foundation reception, Jackson proclaimed: “You can’t vote against health care and call yourself a black man.”13 Coincidentally — or not — Davis lost Alabama’s Democratic gubernatorial primary just over six months later.

Also coincidentally — or not — Jackson has a Libyan connection. His PUSH Foundation received a $100,000 donation from the Arab League in 1981, and Jackson’s lawyer at the time, John H. Bustamante, told the New York Times: “We had solicited and asked for funds from several [African] states, including Libya.”14

In 2009, Cynthia McKinney, a former CBC member, journeyed to Libya to praise Gaddafi. She said Gaddafi “should be highly commended for honoring our ancestors — the framers of true democracy… We are here [in Tripoli] to listen and observe, then to support and carry forth the ideas of democracy and equality, universal principles embodied in [Gaddafi’s] Green Book.” 15

Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, went to Libya in 1984 with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.16 In 1996, the Treasury Department denied Farrakhan permission to accept a billion-dollar gift and a $250,000 humanitarian award from Gaddafi that Farrakhan said he would use in part to offset welfare reform rules signed by President Bill Clinton that left blacks “in the lurch.”17

Farrakhan consistently packs arenas for his speeches. Already, Farrakhan has criticized Obama for “let[ting] these wicked demons move you in a direction that ill absolutely ruin your future with your people in Africa and throughout the world.”18 McKinney already ran for president once as the candidate of the Green Party. An editorial in New York City’s Black Star News cites angry calls about Obama’s Libyan actions to black talk radio stations and warns: “Many black people will never forgive President Obama. The wrongful decision may cost him some significant votes in his bid for re-election next year.”19

All of this, including whatever Wright and Jackson may say, among others, could lead to blacks abandoning Obama at a time when his popular support is failing. Black support has been key to Obama’s past success. Should he lose it, he likely loses everything.

Obama is likely trying to avoid the fate that befell fellow black lawmaker Artur Davis in Alabama. Perhaps this is the reason why Obama largely took a pass on his predecessors’ commitment to freedom for the people of Libya.

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Horace Cooper is a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

Published by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21, other Project 21 members, or the National Center for Public Policy Research, its board or staff.



1 “Could Obama Be Impeached Over Libya? Let’s Ask Biden,” YouTube, 3/22/11, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivVJHOs0i0A&feature=player_embedded as of March 25, 2011.

2 Jesse Lee, “President Obama’s 2011 NCAA Brackets,” White House Blog, The White House, Washington, D.C., available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2011/03/16/president-obamas-2011-ncaa-brackets as of March 17, 2011.

3 David Shepardson and Susan Whitall, “Motown Sound Fills the White House,” Detroit News, February 25, 2011, available at http://www.detnews.com/article/20110225/ENT04/102250382/1424/ENT04/Motown-sound-fills-the-White-House as of March 17, 2011.

4 Lisa Bryant, “France Recognizes Libyan Opposition as EU Toughens Sanctions,” Voice of America, Washington, D.C., March 10, 2011, available at http://www.voanews.com/english/news/France-First-to-Formally-Recognize-Libyan-Opposition–117727673.html as of March 17, 2011.

5 Phillip Suderman, “Arab League Supports No-Fly Zone in Libya,” Washington Examiner, March 12, 2011, available at http://washingtonexaminer.com/blogs/opinion-zone/2011/03/arab-league-supports-no-fly-zone-libya as of March 17, 2011.

6 “Libya: UN Appoints Envoy and Agrees Humanitarian Visit,” BBC News, March 7, 2011, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-12661604 as of March 17, 2011.

7 Nicole Gaouette, “Clinton Says Arab League Vote for No-Fly Zone Changed Minds,” Bloomberg, March 16, 2011, available at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-03-16/clinton-says-arab-league-vote-for-no-fly-zone-changed-minds-1-.html as of March 17, 2011.

8 “Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney, 2/25/2011,” The White House, Washington, D.C., February 25, 2011, available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/02/25/press-briefing-press-secretary-jay-carney-2252011 as of March 17, 2011.

9 Steven Nelson, “Lindsay Graham: Clapper has had Three Strikes, Must Resign,” The Daily Caller, March 10, 2011, available at http://dailycaller.com/2011/03/10/lindsey-graham-clapper-has-had-three-strikes-must-resign/print/ as of March 17, 2011.

10 Jeffrey Kofman and Andy Fies, “Obama Condemns Violence in Libya But Doesn’t Mention Moammar Gadhafi,” ABC News, February 23, 2011, available at http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/libya-president-obama-mention-moammar-gadhafi-condemns-protests/story?id=12977730 as of March 17, 2011.

11 David Frum, “Libya: Barack Obama is in No Hurry to See Gaddafi Go,” The Telegraph, March 16, 2011, available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/libya/8386511/Libya-Barack-Obama-is-in-no-hurry-to-see-Gaddafi-go.html as of March 17, 2011.

12 Jock Friedly, “Hilliard Trip to Libya Sponsored by Wealthy Tunisian Businessman,” The Hill, October 1, 1997.

13 George Talbot, “Rev. Jesse Jackson Slams Artur Davis Over Health Care,” November 20, 2009, Allvoices.com, available at http://www.allvoices.com/s/event-4656789/aHR0cDovL2Jsb2cuYWwuY29tL3Nwb3RuZXdzLzIwMDkvMTEvamVzc2VfamFja3Nvbl9yZXRyZWF0c19vbl9jcml0Lmh0bWw= as of March 17, 2011.

14 Jeff Gerth, “Questions Arise on Jackson Group’s Finances,” New York Times, January 29, 1984, p.1.

15 “Cynthia McKinney, “Declaration of Dignity — The Tripoli Statement,” Green Party, October 29, 2009, available at http://www.gp.org/cynthia/display.php?ID=24 as of March 17, 2011.

16 Michael Tarm, “Activist Obama Church Enters Spotlight,” Associated Press, March 20, 2007, available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/elections/2007-03-20-690594000_x.htm as of March 17, 2011.

17 “Farrakhan Denied Permission to Accept $1 Billion From Libya,” Associated Press, August 29, 1996, available at http://articles.latimes.com/1996-08-29/news/mn-38697_1_farrakhan-denied-permission as of March 17, 2011.

18 “‘Who the Hell Do You think You Are?’ Farrakhan Blasts Obama for Calling for Quadaffi to Step Down (Video),” HotAirPundit, March 19, 2011, available at http://www.hapblog.com/2011/03/who-hell-do-you-think-your-are.html as of March 25, 2011.

19 “Obama Betrays Africa on Libya,” The Black Star News, March 22, 2011, available at http://www.blackstarnews.com/news/135/ARTICLE/7212/2011-03-22.html as of March 25, 2011.

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