Yes, a better America was possible
If the Obama administration does nothing else, it will always compare favourably with Bush's for its diplomacy over Libya
The New York Times called it "inconsistent". The Wall Street Journal questioned whether "any direction" could be divined behind the decision. But in referring to America's part in the attack on Libyan forces, the mainstream media is blind to what has been a brilliant diplomatic – and domestic – political strategy on the part of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Let's not kid ourselves. Right now, and it may only be temporary, American military systems are coordinating the assault on Colonel Gaddafi. Americans pushed through the tougher UN resolution authorising more than just enforcement of a no-fly zone, and the majority of the bombs dropping in Libya are American, some being delivered non-stop from the United States in B-2 bombers.
But that's not how it seems to the world. Having learned the lessons of Iraq and countless other American boondoggles in the region, President Obama has played his hand deftly to avoid accusations of American imperialism and to project the optics of consensus. Today, as the United States engages once more in the Middle East, it does so with the imprimatur of a United Nations resolution and an impressive coalition of allies – not just George Bush's "coalition of the willing" – but countries not usually associated with military intervention in the region, including France and the countries of the Arab League.
This was more than happenstance. It was the result of some careful negotiating by Secretary of State Clinton in Paris at the end of last week, where it fell to her to make the case, adroitly, to Bahrainis to stop attacking their own people, yet take military action against a neighbour. The result of the negotiations was widespread endorsement of the French-proposed resolution, and more.
At the UN, it was the United States that, in the person of Susan Rice, quietly expanded the mandate from a simple no-fly zone to expanded use of military power, persuading France to "put it in blue" – United Nations parlance for taking the resolution to a vote. "It was a brilliant tactical move," an American official close to the United Nations negotiations was quoted as saying. "They (the United States) hijacked the text, which means it could be called to a vote at any time." And when military action started, even though it was under American command and control, it was not US jets that led the way, but French warplanes that first flew into Libyan airspace, demonstrating the breadth of the coalition assembled and making a symbolic point to the world.
President Obama has also "played it cool" – refusing to cut short his trip to Latin America and emphasising that American action will be short (if committed). This is a far cry from the sort of chest-thumping bellicosity from the Oval Office we saw under Bush.
There are, of course, domestic politics at play here as well. America is tired of seeing its military in Iraq and Afghanistan, let alone getting involved in a new Middle Eastern conflict. But through diplomatic and strategic manoeuvering, President Obama has ensured that the United States is simply one nation among many engaging in the region, lifting some of the weight of history from the shoulders of the nation.