There’s been a lot of well-thought-out criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to intervene in Libya’s civil war with no clear objective, plan of exit or even comprehensive knowledge of the rebel forces. But one line of criticism, which is coming almost exclusively from the right, is thoroughly unpersuasive: The notion that America has to be seen as “taking the lead,” as South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham put it on Sunday:
“I am very worried we are taking a back seat rather than a leadership role,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “Isolate, strangle and replace this man. That should be our goal.”
According to Joint Chiefs Staff Director Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, the U.S. is running the operations focused on Libya, although Gortney emphasized during a Pentagon briefing yesterday that the U.S. is “working diligently to affect a smooth transition to a coalition command structure in the next few days.” The confusion seems to stem from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attempted to stress the multilateral nature of the intervention by stating: “We did not lead this.”
Most of the arguments for why the U.S. should be seen as “taking the lead” seem to hinge on little more than the fact that so doing would be emotionally satisfying to those who have been agitating for intervention in Libya since hostilities began. On the other hand, Ross Douthat takes a different tack,arguing that the U.S. multilateral approach facilitates a “caution that shades into tactical incompetence.” But since the U.S. is still extricating itself from President George W. Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, which didn’t exactly amount to “tactical competence,” this too is less than persuasive.
There are several reasons why the U.S. shouldn’t be seen as taking the lead. For one thing, the U.S. is already occupied with the aftermath of one war in Iraq and attempting to bring a more than decade-long operation in Afghanistan to its conclusion. The U.S. does not have unlimited military resources, and other countries that demanded intervention should take responsibility and offer contributions rather than free-riding off of the United States. The statements from the Arab League — which asked for intervention but then wavered when operations started — suggest that there really is a short shelf-life for the legitimacy for this operation in the Arab world, even though intervention initially had global support. If the operation goes badly, or takes far longer than advertised, it’s frankly in the U.S. interest not to be seen as having led the attack on a third Muslim country.
While the case for the international community attempting to prevent Libyan Dictator Moammar Gaddafi from massacring his own people is understandable, there are still reasons for skepticism that this intervention won’t actually compound the problem. But to the extent that the U.S. has decided to intervene in Libya, we should be relieved that the administration has decided to avoid shouldering the entire burden by itself. And we can only hope it actually turns out that way, and the U.S. isn’t left holding the bag.
UPDATE: This post has been edited to better reflect Douthat’s argument.