The eloquence of action
Every time President Obama talks about Libya, he repeats that America is not acting alone, that the Arab League is behind the action and that this is not about imposing change from outside. But as American cruise missiles explode in Libya his statements will compete with the noise of war, which threatens to drown out his insistent message. Actions do indeed speak louder than words.
Obama's message may be in part intended to sooth supporters at home, who saw their man as an anti-war president and are now having second thoughts. But they are much more for the world beyond the West. A reassurance that Libya is not Iraq, this is not imperialism, this is not the America that decides world winners and losers. It is not the Western crusade for oil that Gaddafi describes.
The president jumped off the fence at the last moment for a number of reasons. The rapidly crumbling of the rebel forces, the realization Gaddafi was about to win. The support of the Arab League. But unavoidably, choice was forced upon him by the vigorous lead given by Britain and France. Crucial allies of the US, they were out front, loud in their demands and the moment was approaching when Obama would either have to oppose them or back them.
Not joining in was too risky, a declaration of independence too far for a president who stress the need for the world to work together.
They had their own, internal political reasons. Sarkozy after an embarrassing Egyptian crisis, wanted to put himself on the front foot. Cameron sees this as a big foreign policy moment, and wants to establish his reputation. But it is far too cynical to put their enthusiasm down to these shallow reasons alone.
They felt it was their duty to intervene. We don't focus on this nearly enough. The Chinese didn't feel that way. Neither did the Russians. Nor the Indians. Or Brazilians. And despite the Arab League's much trumpeted backing they wouldn't have made a peep without encouragement and still aren't doing much despite all those planes they buy from the US and UK.
Why does the West feel this way, when no one else does? Is it a legacy of the enlightenment, a sense of responsibility and shared humanity? Or does it follow from colonialism, a feeling that it is their role to rule, that there is still a version of Kipling's "White Man's Burden", - the "savage wars of peace" - even if it is defined by geography, not colour.
Until the history books are printed, or at least Woodward's next book, we won't know what Obama really wanted. Perhaps he desired this outcome all along but felt it best to hang back for tactical reasons. Perhaps it is what he wanted to avoid, but the alternative of a massacre happening partly because of American dithering, was much worse.
Obama in the end has opted to adopt the traditional world view of the West, while insisting he is different. This could be applauded in the Muslim and the Arab world. It could be ignored. Perhaps the lesson is that the President of the United States will be looked to to lead, whether he likes it or not. It's a question of direction.