x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

World waits in vain for US to provide leadership and clarity

Other nations will have to take more responsibility as America has shown itself to be a more passive power during region's unrest

It is hard to find many people around the world with a good word to say about President Barack Obama's handling of the Libyan crisis.For weeks Washington has dithered on the imposition of a no-fly zone to ground Col Muammar Qaddafi's air force. Finally, when it is too late, the US seems to have accepted the idea, but the issue is now academic. The forces loyal to the Libyan leader are so far superior to the disorganised and outgunned resistance that he hardly needs his air force.

There is a venomous tone towards Mr Obama in press comment in Britain, which has traditionally looked to the US for leadership. The Times blames Mr Obama for turning the tide of north African revolutions, calling him "feckless" and "a brutal disappointment".

There is a strong element of hypocrisy here. Britain has just slunk out of Iraq and is trying to get out of Afghanistan as soon as is decent, so what business is it of London to goad the US into another military adventure in a Muslim country? And particularly one that is of greater strategic interest to Europe than to the US.

It does not need a great military brain to see that enforcing a no-fly zone is not just a gesture of solidarity. It is the first step in a process that, by the immutable laws of mission creep, led to a full-scale bombing campaign (in the Balkans) and to land invasion (in Iraq).

The loudest voice from the US administration has been Robert Gates, the defence secretary. No closet peacenik, he memorably said that anyone in his position proposing to send another US land army to the Middle East "needs his head examined".

His judgement is no doubt correct in military terms. The issue for US allies is the lack of any clear Washington policy on the greatest development in the Middle East for a generation. The fact that Mr Obama has allowed his defence secretary, who is soon to retire, to set the tone of the debate in purely military terms is proof of the lack of any credible vision for the future.

America's allies see only passivity or contradiction in Washington's response. Mr Obama seems to be cheering on the revolutions which remove long-time allies, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, while sitting on his hands when it comes down to ridding Libya of Col Qaddafi, a ruthless old enemy of the US and a lingering embarrassment to the Arab world.

In Europe, this passivity is greeted in different ways. In Britain, the prime minister, David Cameron, is said to be exasperated at US indecisiveness, with insiders describing the diplomatic process with Washington as like pushing on a piece of string. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy has seized the opportunity to take the lead in recognising the Libyan rebels, to the consternation of Germany.

Arab allies are confused as to whether they can rely on Washington for support. It seems like Washington is no longer the status quo power, but rather a go-with-the-flow power. It lets events take their course.

The first to realise US weakness in the Middle East were the Israelis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to defy Mr Obama's clearly expressed demands to stop settlement building. Far from being punished, his obstinacy was rewarded with offers of more F-35 advanced stealth fighters. The message has been heard far and wide: in foreign policy Mr Obama is not an effective politician who can match means to ends.

Of course, we have seen elements of this US weakness before. For decades, Israeli prime ministers ground down American presidents, using their support on Capitol Hill to outmanoeuvre the White House. The difference now is that past presidents have tended to be better prepared, and more aware of the balance of forces, before they do battle with the Israelis.

Likewise, the US has often stood back from intervening to prevent loss of life in far away internal conflicts. Bill Clinton sat on his hands during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. What has changed is that news travels ever faster, and each year more is demanded of the world's sole superpower.

After the vacillations of the 1990s, the UN General Assembly in 2005 endorsed the "responsibility to protect" principle which allows outside intervention in countries where there is an overwhelming need to stop crimes against humanity.

It is a cruel twist of fate that this principle has been accepted just as the only country with the firepower to put it into practice in an emergency has been burned by too many foreign adventures.

What we are now experiencing is the twilight of the "unipolar moment" when the US dominated the globe after the collapse of the USSR. Washington's power is fading not just because of imperial overstretch, but because it seems unable at the moment to reconcile its values with its interests and come up with a clear and comprehensible policy.

The lack of clarity in Washington's thinking is well understood in the Gulf region. The Gulf Cooperation Council countries that sent troops and police to Bahrain did so, according to Washington, without alerting the Pentagon.

This is just one sign of the way the world is turning. In the future, power will be spread more evenly around the world. There will not be just one voice in the world worth listening to - Washington's - but many.

It is not unthinkable that Turkey could end up being the power which steps in diplomatically to prevent a bloodbath in Benghazi. In the longer term, it is likely that Egypt will once again find its voice after years of stagnation and introspection.

These developments are not happening thanks to Washington's leadership. They seem to be happening by default. In the coming days and weeks, this could mean a terrible fate for the Libyan rebels. But the message is clear: every country and every region will have to take more responsibility to look after itself. There is no saviour from across the ocean.

aphilps@thenational.ae