America should lead on the world stage, not follow

When Barack Obama dispatched American B-2 Stealth bombers to carry out the opening missions in an act of war against Libya's Moammar Ghadhafi, the president exposed the flawed assumptions underlying his “Smart Power” foreign policy. The Obama policy holds that the United States should not act unilaterally in foreign policy, but rather it should always be part of a multilateral international coalition, preferably one acting with prior approval of the United Nations. Obama believes this policy is especially vital in the Middle East, where the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was one of a long string of ill-advised unilateral American acts that seriously damaged American credibility throughout Europe and the Muslim world.

But the B-2 is an ideal weapon for destroying ground-based air defenses, which is a prerequisite for establishing a no-fly zone across Libya. Carrier-based U.S. and land-based French and British fighter-bombers could have accomplished the same end, but it would have taken longer and involved far greater risk of losing pilots and aircraft. The reality is that no other country on Earth has anything remotely like the B-2, which is all but invisible to enemy radar and can precisely deliver multiple conventional or nuclear bombs at any point on the globe. (Because it is manned, the B-2 can be recalled at any point on its mission, unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles that can also hit any point on the globe.)

We are also uniquely able to conduct satellite intelligence for bomb damage assessment and for tracking Ghadhafi's forces on the ground in order to warn the rebels opposing him. These are only two of the unmatched military capabilities that make America the world's lone superpower. With U.S.-led assistance, the Libyan rebels will almost certainly defeat Ghadhafi and give their nation a genuine chance to join the free world. Without such assistance, however, Ghadhafi will destroy them and Libya will remain in the grip of a brutal, self-serving and probably insane dictator.

This brings us to the flaws in Obama's strategy, as applied in the Libyan crisis. First, when Obama declared two weeks ago that it was time for Ghadhafi to go, he thereby assumed responsibility for making that happen. But instead of acting unilaterally to that end, he waited for somebody else to do so, thus giving Ghadhafi time to regroup his mercenary forces, then slaughter hundreds of rebels while backing them into a last-ditch stand in Bengazi. Only when French President Nicolas Sarkozy stepped forward to initiate a multilateral coalition did Obama consent to a significant U.S. military role, including establishing the no-fly zone.

In other words, Obama followed, he did not lead. He proclaimed a saber-rattling unilateral necessity — Ghadhafi must go — but then followed a vaguely defined multilateral policy to bring it about. Obama's policy fits neither the country he's supposed to lead, nor the crisis that he implicitly promised to resolve. Given such policy confusion, no one should be surprised that U.S. officials spent much of the day Sunday denying that the U.S. was leading the attack on Libya, a claim that elicited derision — first, because it was now demonstrably false; second, because only weeks earlier it had been the pusillanimous policy of the nation that's supposed to be the world's beacon of freedom.

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