It's a foolish kind of anthropomorphism, applying the rules of a children's playground to international affairs, to say that America is acting like a bully when it takes the initiative. Or to say that we must act as if we are just one nation of 192, with a vote and moral standing no greater than anyone else's.
That's the rule, to be sure, in the United Nations General Assembly -- which is why Franklin Roosevelt was careful when he designed the U.N. to make sure that it had no real power. It's not an intelligent way to think about foreign affairs and military power in the real world.
Now, there is some reason for an American political leader to pay lip service to the notion of unilateralism. Americans tend to be queasy about military intervention -- now even more so, given our 10 years in Afghanistan and eight in Iraq -- and on balance, that is probably a good thing.
The problem comes when an American president takes the bias against unilateralism too far. Bill Clinton initially deferred to our European allies in responding to violence in the former Yugoslavia. But he felt obliged to take the initiative when they proved feckless.
He declined to seek approval in the U.N. Security Council, where it would have been vetoed by Russia, and sought the imprimatur of NATO instead. On Libya this year, Turkey indicated it would block the unanimity necessary for NATO action, so Obama went to the Security Council, where he got a resolution authorizing military action Thursday.
In effect, this was what Donald Rumsfeld called a coalition of the willing, and we got a multinational imprimatur because we persuaded the unwilling to abstain rather than to vote no. But it's possible that action will turn out to be too little too late, with Gadhafi poised to crush the rebels -- or too much too soon, committing us to a dragged-out land war.
Avoiding unilateralism may be helpful, but it can cost more than it's worth.
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