Make no mistake, the US is “damned if we and damned if we don’t” do anything on the world stage. This current Libyan crisis has stirred up my memories of the last one, when I was studying in England and the U.S. launched an air raid on Libya. That was in 1986, and in response to a terrorist bombing in Germany. Even though the action was taken with European and Arab support, I clearly remember facing a wall of anger when I went to class the next day. I had to deflect criticism from my international classmates – even my teacher. The military action was seen as U.S. aggression, plain and simple. America poking its nose in where it didn’t belong. So, when President Obama waited to get an international coalition organized through the U.N. for a no-fly zone in Libya this past week, I understood some of what was behind his hesitation.

And yet, when I saw the pleas for help from civilians who saw their friends and relations killed, a little voice in the back of my head asked “maybe the U.S. should take the lead, now that this is turning into a human rights tragedy”. It was an interesting reaction, one that surprised even me. I usually don’t respond to complex crises emotionally. Apparently, I’m human. And American.

That doesn’t mean I’ve always supported American ideology. I’ve never believed that any nation can “impose” democracy on another, and I don’t believe that nation-building is a U.S. right. However, defending human rights transcends the political…right? On the face of it, yes, but in reality, no. Bottom line, any intervention in a foreign country crosses political boundaries and therefore brings consequences that can obliterate original good intentions.

There are so many reasons the U.S. should be cautious about how it handles this particular crisis in Libya. The controversy right now is of course that getting involved in this conflict could be the start of a new and protracted war (and allegations that it’s not a legal one for the U.S., i.e. not approved by Congress). There’s also a precedent set. With potentially more Arab rebellions and maybe even revolutions, would the U.S. be willing and able to abide by that precedent and intervene in other countries as well? Iran comes to mind. And even though this may have started as a humanitarian crisis, it appears to be devolving into a civil war. This is not a situation in which the Administration wants to be.

On the international front, as a recent TIME Magazine article put it, President Obama has “emphasized the limits of American power more than its reach”. However, the hesitation and careful nature of, as TIME Magazine called it “leading from the back” will have its consequences too. While it’s gratifying to see countries like France be step up and take action (they wouldn’t even allow U.S. planes to fly over their air space in 1986), there’s a price the U.S. will play on the global stage. America will not be perceived as a “leader” anymore and by extension, the U.S. sphere of influence will be diminished. It will be interesting to see if this country can stand that.

Interestingly, this is a simple principle I learned playing high school sports. Once voted captain of a lacrosse team, I remember hesitating to step in the center and lead the warm-up. I joined the others in the circle instead. It seemed like a team-building approach. However, the other players weren’t quite comfortable looking to their side for direction and when the exercises started to fall apart, another girl literally stepped into the center of the ring to take over. I started to lose control of my own team, in a split second. Never again, I vowed. I led from the center, standing alone, after that.

What’s happening in Libya is a turning point not just in the Arab world. This is the first test of a new U.S. foreign policy approach. Despite the political controversy over whether the U.S. action in Libya is an act of war, a recent survey showed the majority support how the President’s handling the crisis. I’m curious to see if that support will last. The only thing we can count on not changing is the constant current of international criticism continuing, whatever direction the U.S. chooses to go.

  • Ran Slaten

    Speaking of leadership, my daughter, Shandel Slaten, CEO True Life Coaching, is hosting a Women’s Leadership Summit in Seattle Apr 4 (she’s very good at what she does) for top women business leaders.
    I have recently wondered what would happen if Americans pulled out of all the zones of conflict by, say Saturday….just walk or fly away. What would happen in the Middle East? Anybody?

  • laszlo

    first it is not close to being an act of war! two; war powers act lastly dont ask for something you canno take! So the president can have a private war for 180 days before he has to go to congress and ask for a deleraction! Thank you!

  • Jeff Paulson

    Not sure he was leading … at least not by choice. I simply don’t understand his reason for going though with this. He didn’t act in Iran (other than stern words), where the rebelliions most recentlly started. He only used a verbal approach towards Egypt. And lets not forget other Arab nations are facing similar uprisings and we haven’t moved on them, only on Libya. I think it wasn’t so much as a leader, but rather in support of actions that our friends in France and England wanted to take. But that’s supporting allies, not leading.

    There’s also the fact that this type of action, even with UN support, is exactly what he campaigned against to get eleceted in the first place. Yet, we’re still in Iraq (following the previous administrations exit plan), still in Afganistan – with a stated exit date, but no real sign that any goals are being accomplished. Still using Gitmo as a detention and trial center more than a year after he declared he was going to close it. And now we are engaged in a new conflict, and don’t skip that fact that a UN or NATO action is staffed mostly by US Military personnel, so if the UN or NATO troops put boots on the ground, those will be our troops.

    And on top of it all, this administration is making the same financial mistake in this effort that the previous administration did … and spending money it doesn’t have to proceed with the actions. If we were to be finanacially responsible, something should be cut from the budget to pay for these wars … or taxes should be immediately increased to pay for the wars … but we just continue to spend what we don’t have and increase our debt.

    The previous administration, whether you agreed with it’s military action or not, was clear on what it wanted to do and stuck to their end goal … so much so, the exit strategy is still being followed.

    The current adminstration is not doing what it said it would do …and continues to act like it is.

    If this is “leading”, it’s decision making by emotion, not principle … and that’s not leading … that’s following whims of the moment.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d put a bullet in the head of Gadhafi myself given the chance. He’s a selfish cold blooded killer who rules true fear and intimidation. A bully who needs to be dealt with once and for all.

    But we didn’t go to Darfur. We ran away from Somalia. And what about Burma?. … If Libya, then why not these other places?

    I just wish our “leader” would actually lead. Then at least we could make a clear decision on if we wanted to follow or not. But right now, he’s just a loud voice in a crowd and no one is sure which direction to go because no one is in front to show us the way.

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