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Ferry Diplomacy

America's disgracefully inept response to the Libyan crisis.

By 2.27.11

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In a bold and daring move that suggested Churchillian backbone, the British military on Saturday flew military aircraft into Libya to rescue oil workers and others stranded in desert locations amid the escalating violence of Moammar Gaddafi's reign of terror.

The secret mission reportedly plucked 150 or more British citizens and other nationals from the chaos and flew them to safety in Malta Saturday, U.K. Defense Secretary Liam Fox confirmed to Associated Press.

The bravado of the British in acting to rescue its citizens from a madman's mayhem stands in such stark contrast to the inept and weak-kneed response of the United States to the Libyan crisis that is raises these questions: What good is the world's greatest military machine if our leaders won't use it? And why pretend to be a world leader if we won't act like one?

Those were questions that I had been asking myself all last week because of a personal connection to the tragedy unfolding in Libya. My nephew is a Foreign Service Officer who was working at his job in the United States embassy in Tripoli when the revolutionary winds of democracy blew in from Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Despite the obvious warning signs of turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East, the State Department was caught completely unprepared for unrest in Libya, where Gaddafi has ruled by brutal tyranny for four decades. How it could not have dawned on the Obama Administration that American citizens and embassy officials would be in grave danger is beyond comprehension. Yet it seems there were no contingency plans for getting Americans out if violence reached Tripoli.

I was astounded to learn this week that the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli had no U.S. Marine security guard. I had always believed that Marines protected every U.S. embassy, even in the most secure and friendly nations. But in Tripoli -- of all places -- it turns out that the only security for the small embassy staff was provided by hired Libyan nationals.

As the Washington Post reported Sunday: "The U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic posts in Tripoli, reopened only five years ago, comprise a series of lightly protected compounds and trailers. The guards there were Libyan, not the U.S. Marines posted outside most embassies. And an armed and angry Libyan opposition was approaching the city from the east, as hundreds of Americans awaited evacuation across rough seas."

In other words, the embassy officials and staff were sitting ducks for a delusional dictator who had vowed to fight to the death to stay in power. We had known for decades that Gaddafi was capable of unspeakable atrocity -- does anyone at the State Department remember the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103? -- and yet our citizens and diplomats were unprotected.

During a week of terror in which it was nearly impossible to communicate with my nephew or virtually any American trapped in Tripoli, I had watched a feckless response by President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the unfolding slaughter in Tripoli ordered by Gaddafi.

After days of silence, Obama finally went on television to deplore the violence and to promise that his beloved "international community" would begin debating responses, but he timidly would not even name the source of that violence -- Col. Gaddafi. The President's rhetoric tiptoed along a tightrope stretched between restraint and gutless appeasement, as if not offending a terrorist murderer was his first priority.

All the week, I kept asking myself: Where in God's name is the U.S. Navy? Is the Navy's Sixth Fleet not deployed in the Mediterranean with ships and aircraft available to rescue trapped Americans in Libya? Why not use it? In my mind's eye, I envisioned a daring nighttime rescue by U.S. Navy Seals, dropping into the embassy compound via helicopters and pulling U.S. officials and American citizens to safety.

But no. Instead, the Obama Administration's response was to hire a commercial ferry from Malta. The Maltese Ferry was no falcon (apologies to Humphrey Bogart), swooping in to swiftly fly our endangered Americans to safety. Once it reached Tripoli harbor, it sat there for three days because the seas were too rough for it to sail. (I bet an American destroyer would not have delayed sailing because of weather.)  So once our embattled Americans escaped from our unsafe embassy, they had to endure three days on a ferryboat unsuited to the venture -- all the while wondering if or when Gaddafi's planes or tanks might blow it and them out of the water.

The story ended happily when the ferry finally docked in Malta on Saturday, but that was thanks to pure luck rather than to our government's ability to manage crisis. It was left to the British to give us a lesson in bold action. Under Obama's leadership, America has become expert at apologizing, temporizing and speaking in mealy-mouthed, multicultural ambivalence, while remaining unwilling to act boldly or speak clearly as if it were still a leader of the free world.

Gaddafi may fall, not because the United Nations imposes sanctions, and not because President Obama has given hope to those yearning to be free, but because the people of Libya will risk torture and death to topple him. Theirs is the admirable patriotism of honor. Ours is the embarrassment of dithering in the crisis, and watching -- with poignant memory of past leaders like Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan who knew when to speak clearly and act boldly -- while the Brits show grit and guts reminiscent of Churchill.

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About the Author

James P. Gannon is a retired former Wall Street Journal reporter and newspaper editor. He lives in Virginia.