Daniel W. Drezner

The utility of not taking the lead on Libya

As I try to sort out all of the implications of Operation Odyssey Dawn, I see two memes that should be thought of in concert.  The first one is the striking fact that the United States seemed to be following rather than leading on organizing the U.N. Security Council to take action.  The second theme ...

As I try to sort out all of the implications of Operation Odyssey Dawn, I see two memes that should be thought of in concert.  The first one is the striking fact that the United States seemed to be following rather than leading on organizing the U.N. Security Council to take action.  The second theme is that Libya is way far down on the list of America’s Middle East priorities, so the United States should be wary about the opportunity costs of getting too involved.

Combining these two memes makes me think of my wedding — and therefore why this aspect of U.S. policy towards Libya might be a good thing. 

Let me explain.  When my lovely bride and I were planning our nuptials, we were wary of excessive parental interventions on the issues we really cared about — the vows, the food, the music, the seating arrangements, etc.  Of course, these were our parents, so a stonewalling strategy wasn’t going to work terribly well either. 

Faced with this policy conundrum, we hit upon a brilliant idea — we had to give them an issue that they cared about fervently but didn’t really matter to us all that much.  So, we had the Official Blog Moms decide on the favors that would be at every place-setting. 

This proved to be a brilliant maneuver.  We would receive constant updates and debates about what was under consideration.  When receiving all of this information, we would smile, nod, and say, "we trust you to make the right decision."  All the while, we took care of the Big Wedding Issues that were of Serious Importance to Us.  I think the result was a win-win — the parents claimed ownership of something they cared about, but we got the wedding we wanted. 

What does this have to do with Libya?  This issue clearly animates French President Nicolas Sarkozy more than U.S. President Barack Obama (surprisingly, given France’s past preferences on these kind of issues).  Sarkozy has been receiving plaudits for his leadership.  Which is great on two counts.  First, it (hopefully) means that after the initial efforts to ensure that Libya’s air defenses are neutralized, the United States really can let France and the U.K. take the lead on operational activities. 

Second, I share other’s concerns that an excessive focus on Libya might distract the top U.S. leadership from Other Really Big Events.  What holds for the United States holds for France with even greater force, however.  In that sense, then, the more that Sarkozy is obsessed with Libya, the less time he can devote to overambitious and ultimately futile grand economic designs his pet projects in preparation for the 2011 G-20 summit

Much like big weddings, many things could go wrong along the way — but I think pundits need to appreciate the positive second-order effects of letting France be in charge of the chocolate favor— I mean, the immediate intricacies of enforcing Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. 

What do you think? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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