US dithering over Libya suggests the moment of overstretch has arrived

Just to lift sights out of the island for a bit, a pre-Paddy’s Day reflection on America that has nothing to do with Ireland. This it will be noted, is in accord with Ireland’s new found modesty about its own importance across the pond. To Europeans, not to mention pro-democracy Arabs, Obama’s silence over Libya is deafening. And yet Americans seem content with that, relieved perhaps that coverage of  Gadaffi’s threatened roll-over of the Libyan revolution has been virtually wiped out by lurid speculation about nuclear meltdown in Japan.   You have to scroll well down the Huffpo front page to catch references to Libya; the New York Times is much the same. (Mind you, try to access the FT on the same topics as Americans wakes up and you get a “servers overloaded” warning).

The era of the sole superpower may be drawing to a close earlier than much of the world expected. Will we live to regret its brevity? Critics of the US can’t have it both ways: to cry wolf every time America intervenes abroad and cry freedom denied when she doesn’t.

Britain and France finally lost their independence of action in the Middle East over the  Suez debacle as long ago as 1956.   America’s fleet even buzzed the task force of Britain its closest ally in a dramatic show of disapproval. France rammed the point home in North Africa when de Gaulle the self –proclaimed national saviour  proclaimed to  1 million French colons of Algeria: Je vous ai compris meaning, not as they thought, “we will support you” but, “ your day is done.”

Now in the post colonial, post cold war era, America hangs back. Is this Eisenhower-like prudence as the NY Times columnist David Brooks argues, or a more profound symptom of American decline as they digest the full costs of Iraq and Afghanistan?

Is this the cue for Europe to pull together and fill the gap? For decades the US has been in two minds about Europe. Should US administrations encourage a bolder more forward looking and united Europe to share the burden of the sole superpower? Or by so doing, do they create an irritating if still basically on-side rival which makes independent noises like the French?  Europe itself  is as divided as ever, over Libya as much else. Whatever diplomatic noises are made by Britian and France about  turmoil in the Moslem world, Europe continues to be preoccupied with itself, with its  long rumbling debt crisis, where Ireland has its small window on the world.

   One bright spot here: rhe Guardian has launched a new European section of Comment Is Free that hugely extends the paper’s on line offer far beyond the hard copy edition. 

 From David Brooks’ column  the New York Times.

(Obama’s) cautious reactions to the Libyan revolution amounted to “tightening the noose” around Qaddafi. Yet there is no evidence that Qaddafi is feeling asphyxiated or even discomforted. As he slaughters his opposition, Western caution looks like fecklessness.

Prudence is important, but Americans do have an expectation that their president will be the one out front, dominating the agenda, projecting strength and offering vision.

All in all, President Obama is an astoundingly complicated person. During the 2008 presidential campaign, and during the first two years of his term, I would have said that his troubling flaw was hubris — his attempts to do everything at once. But he seems to have an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust. Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London