By Barry Rubin
I’ll bet your mother said to you at least once: “If all your friends jumped off a cliff would you do it also?”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement on Libya reminded me of that kind of admonition:
“I would point out that Europe led the way in our response on Libya, and they were fully supported by the Arab League. So with respect to Libya, the United States is very willing to be part of this coalition, and we have contributed a great deal. But it was concern from Arab leaders and European leaders at the United Nations that really moved us forward with respect to Libya.”
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This is a very unusual U.S. government. It is eager to show that it isn’t a leader. The underlying belief is that America must prove it isn’t a bully so that the rest of the world will love it. What’s important, however, is that in international affairs the strong are criticized but also get respect.
There is a strain in American political culture, from the founders, of not wanting to be too pushy in international affairs. At times in history this could shade off into isolationism, though that’s pretty unlikely in today’s world. Before the United States entered World War One, there was a slogan explaining that policy: Too proud to fight.
What the assassination of Usama bin Ladin proved is that America can get things done when it wants to do so. And also that it can act alone when necessary. It is less proof of President Barack Obama’s brilliance and courage than it is of America’s ability.
The question that must be foremost is whether a given action is in U.S. interests NOT whether it polishes the U.S. image. A willingness to be unpopular at times is a necessity for any country that wants to survive and prosper.
Just because the Arab League says it’s ok is not a sufficient criterion for U.S. foreign policy to do something.
To be fair, I understand that this isn’t precisely what Clinton is saying. I’m sure she would add that the intervention in Libya is in U.S. interests. But I still don’t think that’s true.
Moreover, this argument about what everyone else does becomes the rationale for not doing more about Iran or Syria. And one fears it will shape mistakes yet to come.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com.