Skip to main content

It is rare, indeed, to witness a U.S. President looking to France for leadership. But as he grapples with restoring American status at home and abroad, Barack Obama is more than willing to cede the title of global sheriff.

Average Americans, the ones whose sons and daughters actually fight the commander-in-chief's wars, are still reeling from the military entanglements into which George W. Bush led the country. The current President came to office vowing to unwind – not multiply – them.

Mr. Obama agreed to American participation in enforcing a United Nations resolution authorizing "all necessary means" to stop Moammar Gadhafi's assault on his own people. But he did so with one crucial caveat: No more mission creep.

"He doesn't want another war on his watch," Thomas Alan Schwartz, a presidential historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, explained in an interview. "There is a much greater reluctance among what you might call ordinary Americans to think about any kind of U.S. military involvement."

Mr. Obama had for days resisted being drawn into another foreign conflict, despite pleas from the Libyan rebels for support and calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for a U.S.-led no-fly zone over Libya. The President changed course only after France, then Britain, took the lead in seeking a UN resolution to authorize military action.

"It is the complete opposite of Iraq, where it was the U.S. doing the pushing," Prof. Schwartz added. "There is a very different dynamic now, which this administration probably prefers."

In the Obama White House, unilateral U.S. action is a foreign concept. The world, or most of it, is undoubtedly grateful for that. But it also means that rogue states and dictators can carry out their misdeeds without fear of swift and muscular correction from America.

The Obama Doctrine is all about multilateralism, in which the United States is neither first among equals nor the primary actor in geopolitical affairs. Perhaps this reflects a growing realization that U.S. power is not what it used to be. But it also suits Mr. Obama's style and priorities.

This will take some getting used to for a world accustomed to American leadership, both military and moral. And while it may help undo the schoolyard bully image of America that Mr. Bush managed to cement, there are big risks in America speaking too softly, too late or not at all.

Hillary Clinton experienced them first hand this week, when the young leaders who forced Hosni Mubarak from power refused to meet with her in Egypt. "Based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the U.S. administration in the Middle East, we reject this invitation," the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition reportedly told the U.S. Secretary of State.

The notion that Ms. Clinton and State Department officials thwarted Mr. Obama in his attempts to endorse the Egyptian protesters early on in the uprising – a version of events advanced by unnamed West Wing operatives in The New York Times – simply does not hold up under scrutiny.

Ms. Clinton has been a loyal foot soldier in this administration, carrying out orders from the White House. Indeed, Foreign Policy magazine reported that Ms. Clinton had been pushing for a no-fly zone over Libya for days, but held off making her views known – even to G8 foreign ministers she met this week – until the White House had signed off on the idea.

There is also an apparent contradiction in Mr. Obama's citing of Col. Gadhafi's "campaign of intimidation and repression" to justify the UN resolution and his silence on the arrival this week of Saudi Arabian troops in Bahrain. The administration's weak response to the suppression of peaceful democracy protests in Bahrain and Yemen – it has called on leaders there to "exercise restraint" – suggests it would rather the "problem" just go away.

Admittedly, the situation in these countries would pose policy conundrums for any U.S. administration. Sectarian tensions are rampant in Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet is stationed, and Iran sees an opportunity in the unrest there to extend its influence. Political instability in Yemen could complicate U.S. counterterrorism efforts in that country.

"It is pretty clear the administration is not sure what to do in the Middle East, so, they've decided to adopt something of a case-by-case approach," Prof. Schwartz offered. "That has meant they have really been behind on almost everything."

Welcome to the new world of American followership.