Gaddafi's Endgame: How Will the U.S. Get Out of Libya?

At its broadest, Obama's diplomacy has tried to redefine the exercise of American power. But how he handles the end of U.S. intervention in Libya, and the ouster of its stubborn leader, will determine the mission's success — and duration

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Yuri Kozyrev / Noor for TIME

A Libyan rebel fires a rocket-propelled grenade at government troops in Ben Jawat, Libya, on March 6, 2011

Call it the Goldilocks military plan: Not too much, not too little, not too unilateral, not too American. The operation against Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya mirrors the moderate temperament of its architect, Barack Obama. But will it work in the rough realities of international politics? That's the question that will be tested in the weeks ahead as high-tech images of cruise missiles hitting their targets give way to a mess on the ground in Libya.

President Obama has launched an operation that has two distinct qualities, one highly unusual and the other familiar. At its broadest, Obama's diplomacy has tried to redefine the exercise of American power. It is an effort at a distinctive form of multilateralism, deeper than anything any President has tried before. At the same time, Obama is proposing a limited military intervention for a problem in which U.S. interests are limited. That's something Presidents in the past have promised but mostly been unable to deliver as events on the ground forced them to escalate for fear of being humiliated. However wise his multilateral instincts, it is how Obama handles this latter problem that will determine the mission's success — and duration.

So far, Obama seems to have pleased almost no one. For those who had been urging military action from the start, Obama dithered and remains too cautious. For those wary of another open-ended U.S. commitment in the Muslim world, Obama suddenly turned from restraint and became reckless.

But more than anything else, what appears to have infuriated many American politicians is Obama's unwillingness to put the U.S. in the driver's seat. "We have a Spectator in Chief instead of a Commander in Chief," fumed Newt Gingrich. Senator Lindsey Graham criticized Obama for acting as if "leading the free world is an inconvenience." And Rick Santorum levied the ultimate insult, noting that the French — the French! — had been leading the charge.

They are right, in part: Obama does not want to be seen as the ringmaster. The diplomacy of the past few weeks has broken a tradition born in the Cold War. For decades, U.S. Presidents unilaterally identified crises, articulated responses, determined actions and then persuaded, bribed and threatened countries to join in the "collective action." The U.S. ran the show with little interference from others but paid all the prices and bore all the burdens. Countries that would benefit from a military intervention rarely stood up to request it. They didn't need to. America would act, and they could free-ride.

Take a recent example. In the spring of 2003, George W. Bush refused both to give international inspectors more time to do their work in Iraq and to try to get a fresh U.N. resolution through, each of which he saw as an obstacle to attacking Iraq as quickly as possible. The result was a war that was tainted from the start, without a single Muslim ally and with few major countries invested in success. When things started going badly, criticism mounted; the U.S. was left in virtual isolation and, as Iraqi casualties piled up, was painted as the enemy of Arabs around the world.

America has always done better in the role of the reluctant imperialist. The simple fact is that the world does not like its leading military power to be overly eager to intervene in foreign lands. In fact, until the Cold War, the U.S. had a very different image from European great powers precisely because it had few expansionist impulses. America entered World War I after three years of bloody fighting just in time to tip the balance. It entered World War II only after Japan attacked it and Hitler declared war. The U.S. had the capacity to be an imperial power but chose not to be one. Yet during the Cold War, Washington developed the habit of intervening early and often in far-flung places, worried about communist takeovers. As a result, America was seen in much of the Third World in the same light as the European colonial powers, forfeiting a crucial moral and political advantage.

In the Libyan crisis, the Obama Administration made clear from the start that it was not enthusiastic about military action and would support it only if it were requested by the Libyan opposition and the Arab League — and with Europe doing much of the heavy lifting. This led to a remarkable turn of events in which on March 12 the Arab League officially requested that the U.N. impose a no-fly zone over Libya. This shift has not gotten the attention it deserves. In the 66 years since its founding, the Arab League has served as a shield for dictators and rarely produced anything but windy rhetoric about Arab solidarity and Palestine. The idea that it would act against one of its members — and because of human-rights violations! — was unimaginable one month ago. Five days later, the U.N. Security Council passed resolutions authorizing action against Gaddafi's forces. France and Britain were positively itching for military action.

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