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U.S., allies face unease without U.S. at helm of Libya mission

By Elise Labott, CNN Senior State Department Producer
  • Libya crisis is first real test case of Obama's foreign policy as partnership
  • Both U.S., allies don't feel it's working
  • Both need to exercise more leadership

Washington (CNN) -- Two years ago during a little-covered press conference in Trinidad and Tobago, President Barack Obama offered an early glimpse of how his administration would approach foreign policy when he said, "There aren't junior partners and senior partners in the international stage."

"We're only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country," he said. He invoked this theme of multilateralism and intenrational legitimacy all through the 2008 campaign as a way to restore America's image overseas.

In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put a finer point on the idea when she said the U.S. would lead by building and empowering "a network of alliances and partnerships, regional organizations and global institutions."

It sounded good at first, not only to an American public reeeling from an economic recesion and a military stretched thin after a near decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to a world tired of President George W. Bush's unilaterialist, "you are either with us or against us" approach, which sullied America's status after 9/11.

White House officials abhor the word "doctrine," but Libya has presented the first real test case for how Obama's vision of the U.S. as "team captain" applies to America's military involvement in overseas conflict.

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In his first speech to the nation on Libya last month, Obama made a forceful argument about why the United States would come out first of the gate with its "unique cababilities" to start up the no-fly zone and destroy Moammar Gadhafi's air defenses, but would then take a back seat while others took the lead.

"American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves," he said. "Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well."

There are different ways to judge a partnership. One of them is how it's working for you, And the other is how it's working for your partners. And the answer from both the U.S. and its partners' perspective is that this isn't working. The current disarray of the NATO mission in Libya proves this paradigm gets lost in translation. America doesn't know to be a bit player without losing interest and U.S. allies either don't have the capability to lead or don't view a coalition as serious unless Washington is at the helm.

After taking several decisive steps, Obama has been criticized for not providing the latest assets NATO has requested. Such ambivalence sends mixed messages to U.S. partners, who perceive that the U.S. pulled the rug out from under them and raises the question of whether Washington will be able to count on its allies if they feel they are left twisting in the wind.

What's worse, it also emboldens Gadhafi and the rest of the authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, particularly the Iranian regime watching U.S. resolve as an indicator of what will happen when their revolution finally comes. But it doesn't give much encouragement to the Iranian people to rise up against their leaders.

Obama is right to be thoughtful and cautious about committing American lives and taxpayer dollars to a military mission, whether the U.S. is in a budget crunch and two other wars or not. But if, as Obama has said, America has an interest in being in Libya, it needs to be exercising continued leadership. The U.S. is the most powerful country in the world, with the strongest military, which has special capabilities that need to be brought to bear, ones that can be indispensable in turning a conflict around and that the coalition needs to rely upon for the long haul. Partnership can't mean, "You do it."

But it is equally true that coalition partners need to step up to the plate. The conflict in Libya is inviting comparisons to NATO intervention in Bosnia, where Europe was unable to assume leadership and looked to the United States to get out in front. Britain and France have said they wanted to exercise leadership in Libya. Now is their opportunity to do so. Similarly, other U.S. allies need to get over the psychological hurdle that that all alliances must be U.S.-led to be formidable.

Countries like China, Turkey and Qatar have seen an important opportunity to expand their sphere of influence by filling what they see as a U.S. leadership vacum around the world. But while these countries interests often intersect with Americas, they are not identical. It is tempting to want to share the burden. But as Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute says, it's also a game of risk.

"If in fact you believe that there are certain things that we need to fight for, whether it's freedom, democracy, markets, our own national security and that of our allies. those things cannot be subcontracted," she said. "We don't have to do everything, but we have to do a lot. And we need to recognize that's what the burden of leadership is."