Recently at a dinner hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, former National Security Adviser to two U.S. presidents, Brent Scowcroft stated in response to a question about what Barack Obama should do given the tumult in the Middle East, "President Obama should slow things down, move slowly, cautiously and not get swept into the emotional currents we see rising up in Egypt and throughout the Middle East."
President Obama has been criticized by many on the political left and right for moving too slowly in reacting to Libya -- and while I have been one constantly urging caution -- there is simply no truth to the notion that Obama dragged his heels in orchestrating action there.
Obama and his team -- everyone from Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough, who ran a rigorous decision-making shop comprised of dozens of deputies and principals level meetings; to the team of Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes, Tommy Vietor, Gail Smith, Dan Shapiro, Michael McFaul, Dennis Ross, Jake Sullivan at State, and others from Treasury and DoD did a commendable job of outreach respectively to policy wonks, to national security journalists, and to members of the legislative branch and their staffs; to the diplomatic heavy lifting done by Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice; to the heavy internal molding of options and consideration of downside risk by Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Gates -- everyone moved at warp speed compared to other potential and real humanitarian disasters to with the US and international community needed to respond.
Consider these cases:
1. It took three years for the UN Security Council to pass a resolution establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia -- while it took nine days after the outbreak of fighting for the UN Security Council to create a committee monitoring violations in Libya.
2. Also in the case of the former Yugoslavia, it took more than one year to get an asset freeze on Bosnia and two years to get a travel ban. Again, it took just nine days to secure an asset freeze and travel ban with regard to Libya.
3. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, it took more than one year after the first bombing of civilians by the Yugoslav Air Force to impose a no fly zone -- and just 31 days after the Libyan protests began.
4. In the case of Rwanda, an International Criminal Tribunal took seven months to establish vs. nine days in the case of Libya.
5. In Rwanda, no air strikes were ever authorized to protect civilians vs. the 31 days it took to get a UN Security Council Resolution imposing a no-fly zone including civilian protection.
6. In the case of Darfur, travel bans and asset freezes took two years to put in place vs. nine days for Libya.
7. Again with regard to Darfur, a referral to the International Criminal Court took two years while just nine days with Libya.
8. Finally, while Libyan opposition and civilians got protection within 31 days from when protests started, Sudan never received civilian protection support.
Thus, by any standard given the long time that transpired before an international consensus took shape and before the President of the United States began to invest his time, Libya and the decisions made by the Obama White House -- whether one liked or disliked those decisions -- happened at an incredible rate.
I'm with Scowcroft and think that there is a tsunami of change happening now and that the U.S. needs to be careful about getting drawn in too deeply into any particular part of this transition. We need to weigh our actions carefully and not make the change happening about us. The lens needs to remain on the people fighting for a different future.
All that said, Obama and his team are moving at a comparatively lightning rate of speed on Libya -- and simultaneously managing many other issues and crises at the same time ranging from ongoing concerns about Egypt, new problems in Syria and Yemen, and of course there is the triple nightmare disaster in Japan. And did I mention that the North Koreans have been sending signals that they may start misbehaving again if we don't help them with their fuel, energy, and cash needs?
I don't agree with everything this White House does -- but I have tremendous respect for the fact that Obama and his team have changed the dynamics of response to potential and real mass human tragedy.