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.


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  • Carrickmoreman

    IMHO: your use of “dithering” is used to portray Obama & Co. as being highly unsure of what they’re doing. Whereas, reality is they might be “overstretched”, but the bigger issue is who are the Libyans they are helping? Future democrats or people from the area that has sent the most volunteers to fight the US in Iraq?

    I appreciate that Mr. Obama may be saying “we can’t do it all”, to many of the same clowns who brought you the Afghan and Iraq disasters.

  • JAH

    I have a horrible sneaking fear we’ll still see the remnants of the RAF and the French Foreign Legion making one last belated incursion into Libya with tacit US involvement.

    The Japanese disaster has certainly put a potential dent on quick economic recovery hopes. Nothing like a popular war as Maggie discovered…or Tony when it goes wrong.

  • Cynic2

    More overstretch of imagination than capacity, I fear

  • HopefulPessimist

    I just wonder when politicians will realise that there lack of consistency undermines any moral authority (weak as it already is in many instances) they have for intervening in situations like this now or in the future.

    I also wonder how much of US reticence is due to pressure from the Saudis who must be fairly bricking themselves at the moment.

    For my own part I have no sympathy for Gadaffi who is clearly a psychotically delusional dictator and the world and his people would be well shot of him. In some ways the parallels between him and Sadaam, particularly their genocidal offspring, are amazing.

  • dwatch

    Could Gadaffi’s son become another Franco, and the rebels formed up in Benghasi be a reincarnation of the failed International Brigade. If no outside country is going to come onboard and help the rebels Saif al-Islam could reign Libya for another 40 years?

  • alan56

    Can we really blame Obama for being very reluctant to get involved? The US govt have been taking years of criticism re Iraq and Afghanistan so one can understand their aversion to engagement where their immediate vital interests are not threatened.

  • dwatch

    Obama is reluctant about Libya, because if he goes ahead and gets involved in another conflict in N Africa against Gadaffi what is he going to do about Bahrain, and its autocratic King who has called in military support from Saudi and UAE to put down the non violent protesters for more democratic rule. The USN 5th fleet is based in Bahrain.

  • pauluk

    Obama likes the perks and prestige of the presidency but not the decision-making and responsibilities of the job.

    After a blustering campaign and health care project ram-rodded into law, Obama has retired to the golf course to finish out his presidency. Don`t bother him with the concerns of the world. He just doesn`t care.

  • pauluk

    Americans do have an expectation that their president will be the one out front

    Strange times, indeed, when the world has to depend on France for strength, vision and leadership!

  • Pasty

    Exactly HOW can the US and Britain for that matter give backing to the “Rebel” forces in Libya so easily? The Leader of the Rebel Forces up to 4 weeks ago was the “Justice Minister” in the Gaddafi Regime and the Rebel Army Leader was the Gaddafi “Interior Minister”.

    In Iraq the top 52 (maybe more) people in the Regime were all tried for their parts played in Human Rights violations, what is the difference in Libya – is it just a case of accepting Anyone other than Gaddafi as long it is Regime Change?

    Surely the West should be seen to have some morals and be demanding that actual and real Democrats should be the leading force and not accepting simply a different Dictator to oversee new Human Rights Violations after being Armed by the US and Britain !!!

  • JAH

    The problem for Libya like Romania is that there is no opposition so anyone who takes on Ghadaffi will in all probability be someone who has been part of the system. That doesn’t mean they agree with it but what’s the alternative…being a waiter in Paris?

    Don’t write off the men standing up to Ghadaffi. The last revolt there ended up with a strange fruit hanging off lamp posts and I’d hate to be one the leaders you maligned being caught. I suspect Ghadaffi will ensure painful ends.

    There are no democrats as such in Libya, just people who want a bit more light and freedom in their life. But it is good excuse for those who want to sit on their hands of course and do nothing.

  • joeCanuck

    Historical note: The first US Army overseas campaign was in Tripoli. First Barbary War to try to put pirates in the Mediterranean sea out of buiness. It’s commemorated in the Marine corps Battle Hymn.

  • And its why there are places called Decatur

  • pauluk
  • HeinzGuderian

    Maybe the Oirish would like to help………….for once. Instead of sitting back and criticising from the sidelines,as per usual.

  • I cant actually see how its an Oir…er Irish problem.
    Im entirely neutral. Just like the Malvinas thing.