By Jules Witcover

Once again, we are being reminded by those who revel in our status as the world's sole surviving superpower that it's up to us to stamp out a vile dictator, in this case Col. Moammar Gaddafi in Libya. That, you will remember, was the same basic thinking that eight years ago produced our invasion of Iraq.

That other vile dictator, Saddam Hussein, was indeed deposed and eventually executed. But left in the wake was what looked very much like a civil war and a severely tarnished American image abroad, still not adequately restored.

President Obama currently is walking a tightrope of humanitarian concern for the victims in Libya while trying to channel any muscular response this time through international collective action. He is catching hell in many quarters for the measured effort.

In the implosion of critical areas of the Arab world in the last few weeks, it was relatively easy for the American president to applaud the public rebellions against autocratic rule in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. They were taking place without willful and widespread human slaughter of the sort Gaddafi has been visiting upon his own people to save his regime, and his skin.

But now that it has come to considering use of American military power in Libya to combat the mayhem, Obama is laboring to put an international face on the effort -- through the United Nations, NATO and other multilateral consultations with European, Arab and African leaders.

With the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still on his hands, Obama and his secretary of defense, Robert Gates, are wisely not anxious to flirt with a third one, which any substantial use of U.S. force in Libya could well bring about. Calls from Senate hawks like John McCain and Joe Lieberman for imposition of a no-fly zone over that country, as Gates has explained, likely would not be an antiseptic exercise.

In a quick visit to Afghanistan this week, the defense secretary said the United States "will be well positioned to begin drawing down" some U.S. forces in July as Obama has pledged. But he also reported that negotiations will begin next week on a new long-term security agreement with the regime of President Hamid Karzai to continue the training of Afghan security force beyond 2014.

In setting July 2011 as the date he would start pulling American combat forces out of Afghanistan, Obama was attempting to signal a break from his predecessor's seemingly open-ended commitment to play an essentially unilateral role in spreading democracy in the Middle East. Obama's resistance so far to a major military role in Libya reflects another effort to restore the collective action to American foreign policy from which it drifted in the sole-superpower era.

The pivot back to reliance on international community organizations to deal with crises abroad, which sustained the United States through most of the Cold War when superpower status was necessarily shared with the Soviet Union, will not satisfy the chest-thumpers in Congress and the American news media. But the world has changed substantially since the Soviet breakup, and on balance for the better, without the Damoclean sword of mutually assured destruction hanging over the old superpowers.

There is no cowardice or lack of compassion in Obama determination to tread carefully in pondering the American response to the Libya crisis, amid an Arab world being shaken to its foundations. Fortunately, none of the large field of prospective Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012 has seriously challenged Obama on his cautious approach. They have been occupied so far hammering him on the domestic deficit crisis, his health-care reform act and slow economic recovery.

But if the carnage in Libya continues and escalates as Gaddafi ruthlessly seeks to snuff out the rebellion threatening his 41-year reign of repression, demands from the hawks of the Republican right for tougher American military muscle likely will rain down on Obama. How he responds then will provide a measure of his celebrated coolness, and of his foreign-policy leadership.


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