Photo: Jonathan Ernst/ReutersThe momentous protests in the Arab region, and especially Libya,
present the Barack Obama administration with a serious foreign-policy
test. The conflict in this part of north Africa is the first major new
overseas challenge since the president took office in January 2009. The
way he handles it is then bound to have important consequences, for
Obama’s political future and the US’s geopolitical position alike.

The
complex issues of grand strategy he has earlier faced include how to
deal with Iran (in relation both to Tehran’s nuclear plans, and to the
crisis following the stolen election of June 2009); the
Israel-Palestinian conflict; and the situations he inherited over Iraq
and Afghanistan.

In 2009-10, President Obama fulfilled his
campaign pledge to withdraw the majority of its forces from Iraq in a
way that left the United States both with some power over Iraq’s
political future and some exposure to the consequences of the Iraqi
government’s failures. In Afghanistan, he continued the existing policy,
then doubled its stake by increasing US troop deployments.

None
of these problems has been solved, all can prove combustible at short
notice. Together and singly, they pose serious geopolitical questions
about the US’s role in the world at a time of straitened economic
circumstances. Now the turmoil in the middle east – most violently in
Libya – poses Washington a further question that is starting to reveal
uncomfortable truths about the limits of American power.

The third phase

The
first phase of the north African revolution, in Tunisia and Egypt, left
Washington marginalised. The mass peaceful protests in these countries
that led to the resignation of their presidents also exposed the gap
between America’s theoretical aspiration to support democracy everywhere
and the reality of its practical commitment to dictators – just so long
as they supported American interests and refrained from too openly
opposing Israel.

The events in Egypt, a key US ally, were
especially painful. Between the lines of the administration’s early
reactions – from secretary of state Hillary Clinton  calling Hosni
Mubarak a “friend of my family” to the president’s request for
“stability” and then “orderly transition” – the contradiction between
Wilsonian rhetoric and Bismarckian pragmatism was gaping. The solid
networks of arms sales, military-training contracts and diplomatic
complicity that tied the US to Mubarak’s regime (and the Egyptian army)
were laid bare.

But the exhiliration and relative swiftness of a
self-generated Egyptian triumph also protected Washington from more than
deep embarrassment. Now, the third north African outbreak faces it with
a more practical problem. Libya’s raging internal conflict leaves the
US bereft of a clear policy and all but acknowledging the constraints on
its strength to act.

So far the administration’s public stance
has been cautious, albeit with a steady escalation of rhetoric as the
first eruption of protest in Benghazi in mid-February 2011 has given way
to armed confrontation between supporters and opponents of Muammar
Gaddafi. That may be called wisdom or timidity or mere hesitation, and
it is certainly a change from the willingness of previous
administrations (notably that of George W Bush) to act before thinking.

True,
the statements have gradually become firmer, with Obama on 7 March 2011
raising the prospect of more stringent diplomatic and even military
action to help the Libyan rebels. But the evident concern to avoid
action that could be seen as interventionist, and to explore whether
there could be a role for Nato, reflects inner doubt and confusion.

Yet
if the appetite for imposing democracy has withered, leading
administration figures such as defence secretary Robert Gates and
Obama’s new chief-of-staff Bill Daley are notably hostile even to a
limited show of force, such as the idea of a “no-fly zone” that would
deprive Gaddafi’s forces of crucial military capacity.

Such a
policy might have been imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before the
American-led invasion, but Gates – himself a holdover from the George W
Bush era – has been emphatic in warning of how big the stakes (and
possible costs) were in taking such a course; while Daley was even more
scornful of the no-fly zone’s proponents (they “have no idea what
they’re talking about”).

The president and other officials have
insisted that a no-fly zone over parts of Libya is one of a range of
possible operations under consideration. Yet the defence secretary and
the chief-of-staff’s candid statements are an admission – perhaps for
the first time in public – of the physical as well as political limits
to American commitment; of the hard choices that presidents and their
advisers have to make; and of the fact that the Pentagon’s resources,
vast as they are, are not infinite.

The military option

The
United States’s military assets in and around the Mediterranean remain
formidable. Its nuclear-carrier strike-forces are among the most
imposing agglomerations of military power ever assembled; each is the
platform for close to 100 strike-aircraft and helicopters, and is
supported by cruisers, frigates and destroyers with specialist
functions. A strike-force can carry thousands of marines and supplies,
as well as logistical support for substantial expeditionary forces.

The
US navy has ten of these nuclear-carrier strike-forces; one is “home
ported” in Japan, the others are based in the United States but can be
fairly swiftly “inchopped” (deployed) to the sixth fleet in the
Mediterranean or the fifth fleet in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

There
is no absolute shortage of forces, then. But as Robert Gates has
pointed out, the navy and the marine corps (which is part of it) are
heavily engaged in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Any operations against
Libya would demand subtracting forces from other duties and be hugely
expensive, and face political constraints too at a time when public
support for the US’s war in Afghanistan has declined and the appetite
for further military campaigns is limited.

The withdrawing roar

During
most of the last century, Americans cherished their national self-image
as the ultimate guarantor of freedom and democracy in the world.
Woodrow Wilson portrayed the 1917-18 war as a crusade for democracy;
Franklin D Roosevelt proclaimed the 1941-45 war as a sacred national
trust; John F Kennedy said Americans would “support any friend, oppose
any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Most
Americans would probably still like to think of their country as
committed to JFK’s vision. But the third phase of revolt in north Africa
in effect asks in sharp form what price they are ready to pay to ensure
others’ liberty.

The events in Libya, moreover, raise the
question at a time when the Iraqi and Afghan precedents make United
States intervention in a Muslim-majority country less attractive than
ever on all sides; and when Americans’ new consciousness of constraint
makes them less willing than at any time since 1941 to take on the
responsibilities of the international dragon-slayer. The limits of power
are coming home with a vengeance.

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters’ Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer’s correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. This article has been republished under a Creative Commons licence from openDemocracy.net