This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 19/03/2011
Many Americans — and Arabs, too, for that matter — have a visceral sense that if there’s a war in the Middle East, the United States must be in the vanguard. I’m glad that’s not the case this weekend with the Libyan intervention. Americans should be happy to let France and Britain, who live in the neighborhood, take the lead.
President Obama is turning a page, by letting other nations take the first whacks at Moammar Gaddafi, no question about that. But that strikes me as good strategy, not a feckless blunder.
What’s increasingly clear watching the play of events over the past week is that Obama really does want to change the narrative about America and the Arab world — even at the cost of being criticized as vacillating and weak-willed. He senses (rightly, in my view) that over the past several decades America, without really intending to, became a post-colonial power in the Middle East. The narrative of American military intervention stretches from Lebanon to Iraq to Afghanistan, with the ghastly interlude of Sept. 11, 2001. Obama seems determined to break with it. He really is the un-Bush.
The administration has gotten criticized for changing course on Libya over the past week — resisting intervention and then supporting it. But the essential point, it seems to me, is that Obama was prepared to intervene only when it was clear there was an international consensus — with the Arab League and then the United Nations voting for action. That strikes me as the proper ordering of things, especially at a time when America still has big armies in two other Muslim countries.
The Libyan rebels deserve support, but that should not automatically mean unilateral U.S. military action. We are only beginning to understand who the rebels are and what they want. There may have been an emotional argument for military action on their behalf several weeks ago but not a sound strategic one.
How should this war unfold? What’s ahead is some fighting, which isn’t likely to last long, given what we know of Gaddafi’s military; then we’re likely to see a cease-fire and then political-military process — much of it taking place in the shadows — that leads to Gaddafi’s ouster and replacement by some sort of coalition government.
This Libya war may be messy and confusing, and it certainly won’t be what Pentagon planners would do if they could dictate matters. But that’s the point: America won’t be the writing this script on its own. And that’s a good thing.