Leaders of the Free World

Just as every British monarch has brandished the title “Defender of the Faith” since the days of Henry VIII regardless of his or her spiritual disposition, each American president is bestowed with the honour “Leader of the Free World.”

But in recent days has this name tag been snatched from the lapel of President Obama?
The Democrat leader is being pilloried for not acting sooner to halt Colonel Gaddafi’s attempts to crush the Libyan rebellion.

Oliver North, of Iran-Contra fame, claims that France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is now the leader of the free world who forced the US to take action.

He said on Fox News, which is not known for its friendliness towards the sitting president: “I’m told that the message he delivered, very straightforward, was, ‘We’re going with you or without you.’”

Obama is also getting swiped from the Left. John Judis, a leading liberal commentator, wrote in the New Republic: “If the current coalition had intervened two weeks ago, even with a no-fly zone (which opponents of intervention were claiming would take weeks to impose), Gaddafi would probably be in Caracas by now, and many lives would have been spared.”

Quite a few Brits may be disgruntled at the idea of Sarkozy being crowned as the leader of free people everywhere. At the start of the month David Cameron was apparently slapped down by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates for “loose talk” about no-fly zones.

Likewise, US Democrats can argue that Obama has actually stayed as cool as a chilled courgette throughout this drama and cannily allowed others the UK and France to make the public case for action. By letting Europeans take the lead, he was able to secure the crucial support of Arab League and avoid vetoes at the UN.

If this is the case, it is the latest in a series of signs that Obama is a follower of the Ronald Reagan school of presidential politics.

The two men may represent radically different world-views, but the late Republican leader had a knack for winning landslides and achieving cultural change that even the most ardent Democrat can admire. On his desk he kept a plaque: “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn't mind who gets the credit.”

But maybe this fast-changing drama also demonstrates that we are in what policy wonks call a “multipolar world.” There were moments when Cameron led the free world, and others when Sarkozy was running with the ball, and Obama is certainly a crucial member of the scrum. This is a long game and we are nowhere near half-time.

A Thursday column