Hold the “freedom fries”. The rapid pace of change sweeping the Arab world has wrongfooted many western policymakers. But surprises have extended beyond the region. The Middle Eastern upheavals have revealed US foreign policy to be more timid than the world has become accustomed to, and a remarkable subject has emerged as the toast of neoconservative Washington – France.
While the French lobbied energetically for military action against Libya, Barack Obama and his team deliberated for weeks before finally coming out in favour of a UN resolution – drawing jibes about a president rendered “spectator-in-chief”.
Eric Edelman, undersecretary of defence in the George W. Bush administration – when in the throes of the Iraq war some diehards patriotically rebranded French fries – summed up the bitterness of those who felt that Washington should be more assertive. “This administration seems quite content to let the leader of the free world, Nicolas Sarkozy, move ahead with all of this.”
Administration officials argue that Libya is a special case, since the US sees countries such as Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen as strategically more important. And Mr Obama is an exceptionally cautious, some say hesitant, president. But all the same, the trend lines of US policy are clear.
Faced with an overstretched military, massive government debt and popular disenchantment with foreign wars, Washington is looking for its partners to do more, even if that means the US playing a mere supporting role. So as Mr Obama warned Muammer Gaddafi of impending military action, he specified that it would not be the US but Britain, France and Arab states that took the lead – an ultimatum very unlike those of the era of Mr Bush.
“This is precisely how the international community should work, as more nations bear both the responsibility and the cost of enforcing international law,” the president added, shortly before departing on a trip to Brazil. The problem is, as confusion over the command of the mission in Libya has made clear in the past few days, it is a shift that is easier in theory than in practice.
A world that had alternately relied on and recoiled from US global leadership will find it hard to become used to an America that takes a more considered view of when and how to intervene overseas. But as Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, said in a remarkably passive formulation on the eve of the UN vote: “Unilateral action would have unintended consequences that we cannot undertake: if there is [an] international decision in the Security Council, then the US will join with the international community.”
The difference with the Bush-era formulation – “You are with us or against us” – could not be starker.
“Iraq undermined how American people felt about intervention,” says Madeleine Albright, a former holder of Mrs Clinton’s job.
Bill Clinton once described the US as “the indispensable nation”, for a unique combination of hard and soft power that lent it a global reach unlike that of any other country. But when it comes to Libya, Mr Obama seems as if he would prefer to dispense with American leadership.
“It is not going to be our planes that are maintaining the no-fly zone,” he said on Tuesday of his hopes for the days ahead.
“This is a president who could still run in 2012 on the grounds that he got us out of two wars,” says Anne-Marie Slaughter, until last month the state department’s policy chief. “He’s not going to do things that distract us from Afghanistan. And that’s totally consistent with what I call the Obama doctrine – that other countries are going to have to do more in a more diverse international order.”
There is electoral calculation in Mr Obama’s approach but his reticence is about more than the 2012 presidential poll. Caught up in Libya and the debate about the Middle East are a host of old and new conundrums – about how far to push democratic reform with strategic allies and what the limits of US power to do so are in revolutions fuelled by homegrown demands for regime change.
Within the White House, and among the Democrats generally, Libya has revived a longtime split between liberal interventionists and the party’s realist wing. On one side of the internal debate are officials such as Susan Rice, ambassador to the UN, and Samantha Power and Michael McFaul, both White House aides. All are strong believers in “values”-based diplomacy, interventionism by another name, a camp with which Mrs Clinton is increasingly identified. On the other side have been the foreign policy officials closest to Mr Obama in the White House – principally Tom Donilon, national security adviser, and Denis McDonough, his deputy – who come from a more pragmatic school. Presiding over the debate is Mr Obama. Temperamentally deliberative, he needs to be convinced about the case for intervention before committing troops overseas.
For the US, foreign policy has long been torn between the country’s instincts, to back democracy, and its interests, especially to keep oil flowing out of Middle East autocracies. Straddling that contradiction has suddenly become harder than ever. “We have moderated our instincts for democracy in exchange for stability in the Middle East. But now that stability has been interrupted, where do we go?” asks an adviser to successive administrations.
Added to that is the paradox of democracy. In the long run it can stabilise a country but getting there is inherently destabilising.
Libya itself makes for a murky litmus test of policymaking. “The place where we have the least interest in the Middle East is Libya. It is generous to even call it a state,” says the adviser. Nodding to the island kingdom that is home to the US Fifth Fleet and risks becoming caught up in a tug of war between oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Iran, he adds: “The place where we have the greatest interest is Bahrain.”
The Obama administration has so far indicated that it agrees with this assessment. In a decision significant on both a symbolic and a practical level, Washington decided not to deploy either of the two aircraft carriers closest to the Mediterranean to the coast of Libya. Instead, they have remained in the north Arabian Sea, engaged in the war in Afghanistan, their position sending a message to the Gulf states and Iran alike.
Throughout, administration officials insist that their primary focus remains not on Libya but on Egypt, its neighbour to the east, which Mr Donilon describes as “really absolutely central to the events in the Middle East that we’ve seen in the year 2011”. A successful democratic transition there, the officials say, depends as much on economic reform as democratic change, to address the underlying cause of the turbulence, the “bulge” of young people without jobs.
Comparing the push for democratic change in the Middle East to the anti-communist revolutions of 1989, William Burns, US undersecretary of state, said last week that helping to get such transitions right was “as important a challenge for American foreign policy as any we have faced since the end of the cold war”.
In perhaps the clearest and most exhaustive account of US thinking, he set out four main goals for the region apart from Washington’s “obvious interest in developing greater energy independence”: peaceful democratic change, economic modernisation, Arab-Israeli peace, and regional security, in particular resisting Iran.
Yet another brutal fact, which has also influenced Mr Obama’s thinking, is that American power simply is not what is was.
In Bahrain, days after hosting Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, the ruling family surprised Washington by inviting in Saudi troops to help put down demonstrators. The US relies on Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Yemen as allies – but all have taken increasingly repressive stances towards those who protest on the streets. “The very forces that make these protests successful – like instantaneous communications – mean that it’s going to be extremely hard for us to give one message to the Saudis and Bahrainis and another message to everyone else,” says Ms Slaughter.
Nonetheless, Washington is still broadcasting mixed messages, says David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official.
“The US line seems to be for reform in countries as long as they don’t produce too much oil,” he says. “We seem to be in favour of democracy for Shia in Iran but not democracy for Shia in Bahrain ... This is the problem of realpolitik, where you weigh your interests and check your principles in at the door.”
As Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh teeters and the crackdown continues in Bahrain, the crunch is yet to come. Meanwhile Mr Obama seems set to continue the administration’s understated approach, looking for allies to do much of the heavy lifting.
Indeed, the Pentagon has already codified such an outlook in its latest Quadrennial Defence Review, a formal policy document published last year. It looks to US allies and partners to do more to meet the burden of maintaining global security.
But even though the Obama administration has settled on this more self-effacing role in world affairs, there are questions as to whether it can last – whether, in other words, the world needs more American leadership than the US is offering.
In spite of US reservations – which include doubts in the Pentagon about military intervention in Libya in general and a no-fly zone in particular – it is Washington that is responsible for command and control in the combat’s early days and which has smashed Libya’s air defences. In terms of international diplomacy, moving to non-American leadership is proving more difficult than anticipated, with tempers fraying as France and Turkey hesitated about giving Nato responsibility for operational control. Although an emerging deal would give the alliance a role for command and control but not formally brand the mission a Nato one, details have not been worked out.
This has meant that Mr Obama’s ambition to hand over the lead is proving frustratingly hard to implement – even though the administration’s eagerness to do so appears to have grown, amid increasing congressional criticism of the US role.
Tellingly, the main argument made by mainstream Republicans, and also some Democrats, is not that the administration acted too slowly but that it has insufficiently explained why the US is attacking Libya in the first place and risks being drawn into an open-ended conflict. The US public supports intervention in Libya now it is under way but is war-weary in general. According to Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican foreign policy grandee, “the facts are that our budget is stretched too far and our troops are stretched too far”, so “the American people require a full understanding and accounting” through a debate in Congress.
Ms Albright, a Democrat who in the 1990s helped popularise the notion of the US as “the indispensable nation”, stands by the idea of burden sharing in a multilateral world. “Indispensable does not mean alone,” she says. “I know people think multilateralism is a terrible word, because it has too many syllables and ends in an ‘ism’, but at the end of the day, it just means partnership.”