Who Cares About American Leadership?

The Libyan intervention tested American commitment to multilateralism.

President Barack Obama makes a phone call from the Treaty Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 16
President Barack Obama makes a phone call from the Treaty Room of the White House in Washington DC, March 16 (White House/Pete Souza)

If the Libyan intervention was a test of America’s renewed commitment to multilateralism in the age of Obama, it succeeded admirably.

While the intervention itself was shouldered by a “coalition of the willing,” it was endorsed by virtually the entire international community. Indeed, the United States seemed reluctant to spring into action until every interested partner would sanction it, including the Arab League, the European Union and, notably, the United Nations.

There was no “you’re either with us or against us” this time. Instead, America left the initiative to the heart of “Old Europe.” Nicolas Sarkozy’s airplanes were bombing Libyan armor before the allies could even convene in Paris to discuss their plans.

The heavy military force deployed in disabling Libya’s air defenses was immediately and predictably criticized, by the Arab League and by China and Russia despite their abstentions during the Security Council vote that authorized exactly that. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin compared the assault to a “medieval crusade” but even his president, Dmitri Medvedev, realized that that was a bit of a stretch and suggested that Muammar Gaddafi has brought it upon himself.

Now that America has done the heavy lifting, it has made clear that others — presumably Britain and France under the banner of NATO — should take the lead. They would be able to enforce the no-fly zone with American, European and Qatari support.

Whether that will be enough to give the rebels the edge they need oust Gaddafi remains to be seen. Western powers might supply them with weapons but would do so clandestinely to avoid appearing all too obviously as picking winners and losers in what is now a civil war.

For the time being, the American administration has handled this about as well as it could. No one can pretend that the United States rushed to action in Libya. Even as the outcome of the intervention is unclear and many uncertainties remain about the future of the military effort, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Barack Obama’s reluctance to use force is far preferable to the perceived trigger happiness of his predecessor.