In the fog of war it’s foolhardy to predict how military intervention in Libya will influence the next presidential election. However, Obama’s decisions to support UN sanctioned military action over Libya, rule out US ground troops and head off to Brazil to strengthen American exports are historic: the US has turned a page in its history. Rather than lead the charge, Obama has harnessed himself to the messy management practices of multilateralism. Rather than lead the parade, he kept a promise to visit South America to improve US commercial interests.
This more modest course for the world’s only super power isn’t being undertaken with flashy decisiveness and is getting mixed reviews. Now that he’s acted, many worry that he’s gone to far. And before he acted, many more were embarrassed. He’s been criticized for not offering an ambitious American war objective and, at the same time, for not securing more Arab allies. Earlier, America was accused of going AWOL, leaving a “vacancy and the top of the world.” Senator Lindsay Graham’s tongue in-cheek sarcasm was forgivably brilliant: “One test in foreign policy—at least be as bold as the French. When it comes to Libya, we’re failing that test.”
The camera loves a leader waving a pistol. But the times have changed. Obama may end his presidency with more blood on his hands than Ronald Reagan. But, at least he knows that he can’t afford to keep up payments on that mythic white horse that great leaders are supposed to like to ride.
Obama is still expected to keep up appearances and quick success in Libya would make it much easier for his administration to continue to trim America’s overextended reach. Conversely, offering no help to those who appear to embrace—many at the risk of their lives—the idea of living in a more liberal society could have had dangerous and demoralizing consequences. There is no civilization on the planet that wants to throw away the emerging transnational human rights of the 20th century and free the tyrants to do whatever they want. Simply not being a bully is not all that is being asked of America.
Yet, it’s a bit unnerving that the three major powers that are undertaking this potentially expensive military action—the US, France, and Great Britain—are in very bad shape financially, while two of the powers that demurred—Germany and China—are effectively bankrolling the others.
The dramas in the Middle East, in Europe, in South America and in Asia cannot be re-scripted by American leadership. It may be prideful to even talk about managing the process more smoothly. Yet, Obama has taken some promising steps: the US is still engaged and is renewing old friendship and finding new allies.
Alliance building is different than alliance leading. As Canadians and other friends of the US already know, sometimes it requires getting involved in international problems without any enthusiasm or deferring to peacocks for the sake of a joint enterprise. Looking less bold at the rehearsals than the President of France is trivial—so long as America’s politics can generate workable responses to America’s problems and pressing global issues.