Role Reversal

There’s surely a lot to be learned about what’s going on in Libya right now, but it is far too early to know what the conflict’s legacy will hold.  That doesn’t mean we can’t speculate, though… There’s been a bit of banter from opponents of intervention about the dangers of  “another Iraq”, but in many ways it’s not really a fair comparison. If the Iraq War was the turning point where the United States left the international community behind and forged its own path, will Libya mark its return to the fold?

The differences between US involvement in Libya and Iraq are as vast as the differences between the presidents who authorized them.  Instead of leading a coalition of the willing, which did not include a number of key allies, the United States has been led along by Europe, and to the largest extent Nicolas Sarkozy.  The role reversal here is interesting, not just because Sarkozy is taking a leader-of-the-free-world approach to international relations, but because the French overwhelmingly support him.  And now it’s the French who are telling the world to be patient in Libya.

Perhaps this is the sort of thing we can come to expect from l’hyper-président after his escapades in Columbia and Georgia in 2008, but it certainly seems like a reversal for French public opinion.  Meanwhile, the United States has publicly appeared to be dragging its feet in coming to a decision, to the chagrin of hawks and much of the GOP.  Then again, the US is launching the bulk of the offensive, much as it did in Iraq.

Indeed, the Libyan intervention does not much resemble the Iraq War, and the comparison is surely only brought up for geographic reasons. That, and the Iraq War is ongoing.  Instead, it makes more sense to compare it with the Yugoslav intervention in 1998, another air-only offensive which Prime Minister Blair had to cajole President Clinton into joining.  In Yugoslavia, though, Europe was embarrassed by its inability to prevent genocide on its own soil. This time, it seems Europe is eager to assert its global responsibility to prevent a massacre in its colonial backyard.

Another interesting change that seems to be happening in Libya is the world’s ever-increasing acceptance of humanitarian intervention.  The UN Security Council does not often adopt such a strong resolution (they didn’t in Yugoslavia or Iraq part two).  Moreover, European public opinion has been much more enthusiastic about intervention than in the past.

So what can we make of this apparent role reversal?  Neo-cons will surely bemoan the Obama administration’s passiveness in allowing the forces of globalization to diversify the international world order. But maybe this is the inevitable byproduct of America’s seemingly waning global influence.  Either way, if the Obama administration wants to stand up for the rule of law and democracy in the world, and it’s still not clear that they do, then they will certainly need help while their hands are tied with two wars already underway.

UPDATE: With the recent news that NATO will be taking command in Libya has created another parallel with Yugoslavia.

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