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Is the U.S. now 'just one of the boys'?

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gloria Borger: Barack Obama argued for acting as part of a coalition
  • She says that kind of leadership raises question of who's driving the operation
  • Republican critics are able to attack style of leadership shown by Obama, she says
  • Borger: GOP presidential contenders don't have to take stand for or against intervention

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- To recap: The United States and its allies are scrambling to defeat Moammar Gadhafi's forces in Libya. There's a no-fly zone, a freezing of assets, threats about prosecution in international courts and an arms embargo. We're trying to get Gadhafi to surrender -- and, hopefully, leave.

And, by the way, the president has secretly ordered the CIA to try to figure out just who the rebels are -- and whether they're a dependable enough crew, worthy of our money or our arms. "We haven't ruled out arming the rebels," a senior administration official tells me. "But there are a lot of questions that need to be answered first -- including whether they are even trained to use what we might give them."

If the policy sounds, er, improvisational, that's because it is. Naturally, any form of ad-hoc-ism is not exactly comforting, especially when it comes to foreign military intervention. Most often, intervention works this way: When we are attacked, we respond. When people plan to attack us, we try to prevent it. Presidents are asked to consult with Congress, provide a mission, goals, timetables and endgames. We like to know how we're getting out before we get in. We are understandably war-weary.

Yet when the president proposes an alternative to the now unpopular all-or-nothing-go-it-alone military interventions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it's still somehow unsettling.

We don't want to go it alone. Yet we're not sure we trust others to take the lead.
--Gloria Borger
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When the president says, as he did in his speech Monday, "We should not be afraid to act -- but the burden of action should not be America's alone," we get it. But we also start wondering: What happens if we're not driving the car? We always drive the car. Truth is, we like to drive. And when we're not driving, we think it's easy -- even likely -- for the coalition to veer off course.

So here's the conundrum: We don't want to go it alone. Yet we're not sure we trust others to take the lead.

And that's where the Republican political play is right now. And it's easy: Sidestep the entire question of intervention, while either (a) saying Obama took too long to do it or (b) he did it in a wimpy (and possibly self-defeating) way (spelled "coalition"). In other words, don't lead. Just say Obama can't lead.

Consider Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who recently complained to a local radio station that "The Obama administration's position has been to say, 'You know, we're just one of the boys. We're not going to try to be the leader.' And we see that when you don't have strong leadership from the strongest country in the world, then everybody else scatters out and breaks up."

So, um, what's the right thing to do? "I'm not saying 'Do this, do that,'" he told WFMN radio in Jackson, Mississippi, going on to say we need to make sure we have the resources we need to accomplish the mission. Now is that clear?

Mitt Romney says he supports military action, but says Obama is taking orders -- from the Arab League and the UN -- rather than giving them. And then there's Newt Gingrich, who was for an intervention before he was against it -- at least the way Obama did it.

Republicans can get away with the Obama-doesn't-believe-in-American-exceptionalism stuff for awhile because the public itself is ambivalent. In fact, a Pew poll taken on the eve of the president's speech showed that only 47% of Americans believed that the airstrikes in Libya were warranted. And when asked about whether there is a clear goal, the public also seemed largely unconvinced. Most notably, independent voters said there's no clear goal, by a 57% to 35% margin.

The president deserves props for the immense coalition he put together, not to mention a successful vote in the UN Security Council against Libya. Yet Obama has succeeded in making no one completely happy: Those who wanted unilateral intervention quickly say Obama has dithered, caring more about building a coalition than saving the Libyan people. On the other end of the spectrum, those worried about intervention without a clear exit strategy consider Obama to be too hasty. So he can't win.

Unless he does. If Gadhafi goes, Obama's a hero. And all of that improvisation will suddenly look like a well-constructed sonata.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.