Some commentators love the Libya war; others hate it. But most agree that it’s profoundly unnatural that we were pushed into it by… France. Welcome to the post-American world. In the age we’re entering, most of the time, the choice will no longer be between humanitarian interventions controlled by the United States and humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead. The choice will be between humanitarian interventions where other nations take the lead and no humanitarian interventions at all.
A comparison with the 1990s illustrates the point. In the early 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia began breaking up, and Slobodan Milosevic decided to try to put it back together via genocide, the governments of Western Europe insisted that they would handle things. But they couldn’t handle things, partly because of their disunity and military weakness, and partly because they refused—in a clash of civilizations sort of way—to make clear moral distinctions between the murderers and the murdered. In the summer of 1995, when the Clinton administration—after more than two years of deference—forced the Europeans into a humanitarian war against the Serbs, then-Lieutenant General Wesley Clark exulted “The big dog barked today.”
Back then, the big dog was not fighting any other wars. It was unchallenged in East Asia; its economy was beginning to boom and its fiscal problems were melting away. And even then, Americans only supported the Bosnia war, and its kid brother Kosovo, on the condition that no Americans died.
Today, by contrast, America’s fiscal condition is terrifying and the Pentagon is fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to stay out of one with Iran, and keeping one eye on a rising China. I don’t know what it took to convince an obviously reluctant Robert Gates to permit American involvement in the Libyan no-fly zone, but it’s a reasonable bet that had Barack Obama not been able to promise that it would be a mostly European affair, Gates would now be a military analyst on Fox News. It’s not the 1990s anymore. The American public’s appetite for humanitarian war has always been meager. And now the American government’s capacity for waging it is meager, too.
But in a strange twist, Europe’s appetite has grown. The continent’s military capacity is still tiny compared to America’s, and it still lacks unity, but the shame of European inaction in Bosnia lingers in British, French, Italian, and German minds. Overall, Western Europeans remain more dovish than Americans, but when it comes to genocide, the gap narrows. In the U.S., for instance, anti-terrorism is the only rationale that sustains public support for the Afghan War. In Europe, by contrast, the humanitarian argument sells best.
Libya is also a Mediterranean country. For France and Italy, it’s the equivalent of Mexico, or at least Guatemala. Economically, geopolitically, and culturally, Europe is also the dominant outside force. European countries, especially Southern European ones, have a lot more to gain, and lose, in Libya than we do, so it's normal—indeed, healthy—that they’re trying to take the military lead.
Whether they’ll be able to—whether they have the capacity and stomach for what it would take to push Gaddafi from power—is another question. But it’s not surprising that Barack Obama is giving them a chance to try. Obama is what you might call a roundabout Jeffersonian. Jeffersonians, to borrow Walter Russell Mead’s phrase, believe that preserving America’s economic and political solvency requires reining in American empire. Presidents usually become Jeffersonian in times of economic crisis, public exhaustion, and unpopular war. The problem is that Jeffersonianism—which in different ways both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter embraced as a result of Vietnam—is perilous politics. Retrenchment can look a lot like cynicism, if not defeatism.
The White House’s humanitarian hawks don’t want a Srebrenica on their watch, but they know they need other countries to bear more of the load. Enter Nicolas Sarkozy.
So Obama is trying to do it on the sly, to reduce the costs of American foreign policy without reining in our ambition. In Afghanistan, he’s moving inexorably toward greater reliance on drones—just as Nixon turned to air power in the latter stages of Vietnam—because it’s cheaper in blood and treasure. And he’s trying to burden-share, just as Nixon tried to get regional allies like South Vietnam and the shah’s Iran to do more of the work of containing the USSR. The Libya operation is a good example of this. The White House’s humanitarian hawks don’t want a Srebrenica on their watch, but they know they need other countries to bear more of the load. Enter Nicolas Sarkozy.
Will it work? Beats me. But it’s an illusion to believe we could have done this the old way. One of the crucial questions of our age is whether America’s liberal ideals can flourish despite the decline of American power. Libya will be one of the places we find out.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.