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How Libya revealed the huge gap between U.S. and European military might.

In 1992, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jacques Poos, declared that “the hour of Europe” had arrived. The minister pronounced this falsehood in relation to the catastrophe in Bosnia, where, he assured, the reach of Luxembourg and that of its European neighbors would soon put an end to the slaughter. The hour of Europe stretched across three sickening years, culminating in the spectacle of Dutch troops cuffed to lampposts and ending only when an American column of 70-ton tanks from the First Armored Division crossed the Danube.

Fast forward to 2011. News of the hour of Europe has been supplied once more, this time in Libya. The Europeans haven’t declared it so; President Obama has. Going a step beyond President Clinton, who pledged to gruesome effect that it wouldn’t be our troops venturing into Kosovo, President Obama—after conducting a de facto plebiscite on the advisability of military action against Libya—vowed, “It is not going to be our planes maintaining the no-fly zone.” Instead, we would surrender command and control functions to “NATO,” an otherworldly organization that, it was soon revealed, we command and control. Thus, the administration argued itself into a “surgical” campaign of only a few days and a few hundred sorties. This effort, dubbed Operation Odyssey Dawn by the Pentagon, would, at most, “diminish” Libyan capabilities. The charge of dislodging Muammar Qaddafi, or whatever the point of the exercise was meant to be on a given day, would be left to our European allies. Or, as Antony Blinken, Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, put it in The New York Times on Sunday, “We did lead—we cleared the way for the allies.”

There’s just one thing: The allies don’t have spare parts.

But this is a problem for the mechanics. The president, after all, has inaugurated “a new era of international cooperation” and has said it would be best for America “to act multilaterally rather than unilaterally.” This paradigm responds to multiple needs unrelated to national security as such. It testifies to the virtue and good intentions of its architects. It offers assurance that U.S. military power serves not only national interests but also the interests of all humanity. No one has espoused this view more vigorously than Hillary Clinton. According to the Secretary of State, “We know our security, our values, and our interests cannot be protected and advanced by force alone nor, indeed, by Americans [alone].” Alas, and however respectful of the tenets of enlightened liberalism all this may sound, it provides no adequate response to a dilemma that is the stuff of structure and concrete, not ideology: Libya has exposed the true extent of what defense experts refer to as the “capabilities gap” between Europe’s and America’s military forces.

A campaign devised to showcase the benefits of multilateral action has done exactly the reverse. Easy talk about declining power, multipolarity, and cooperation raises a fairly straightforward question: Exactly whose cooperation do we mean to obtain? Here, the reply also tends to be straightforward: the Europeans, obviously. Leaving aside the question of will—that is, whether the Europeans wish to cooperate in garrisoning the farthest-flung precincts of (what used to be) American influence—is it really necessary to point out that, given the assumption European power alone would suffice to persuade Qaddafi to back down, someone on the Obama team ought to have inquired about European capabilities—that is, whether the Europeans can do this or, more to the point, anything at all? Because, for ten years—or 20, or 60, depending on one’s reading of the international scene—it has been fairly straightforward, obvious even, that the Europeans have left their historical role to history.

Over the past few years, they have gone further, decisively repudiating that role. There is, to begin with, the massive and ongoing wave of defense cuts that has swept the continent. Ten years ago, the U.S. contributed roughly half of NATO’s defense budget; today, it accounts for three-quarters of the alliance’s military expenditure. During the same period, the number of active duty military personnel in Europe declined by more than one third. (The day after he proposed to take military action against Muammar Qaddafi, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s government said that it would be cutting 11,000 troops from Britain’s armed forces. Just before the war, he also announced that the U.K. would scrap its only aircraft carrier.) For ten years now, it has been clear that, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has put it, NATO is “evolving into a two-tiered alliance, in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security and others who are not.” What Gates said was true in Kosovo, where 83 percent of the bombs dropped came from U.S. planes; in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops account for two-thirds of the NATO presence (and a much higher fraction of the combat force); and now, in Libya, where, at least before it abandoned the battlefield, America’s strike aircraft were flying more than one half of the sorties.

If it reveals anything, the war in Libya shows that Obama’s predecessors didn’t spin their proclivities for unilateral action out of whole cloth. “The Libyan crisis has strikingly exposed the lack of a European defense policy: no ability to achieve a common political vision and no capacity to take on an operation of this kind,” said French defense analyst Bruno Tertrais, while a European diplomat predicted to the German news agency Deutsche Press Agentur that a common European defense policy “died in Libya—we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it.” Indeed, the Germans have remained strenuously neutral during the conflict, other than to snipe at the French and the British, while the latter, according to The Washington Post, have nearly run out of bombs to drop.

Far from caviling about the American hyperpuissance, the Europeans have been reduced to pleading for an escalation of U.S. involvement (such as it is). To which the American response has been swift, unequivocal, and wholly beside the point: “Unilateral, open-ended military action to pursue regime change isn’t good strategy, and wouldn’t advance American credibility anywhere,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor insisted, even though what was on the table was a request for multilateral, limited action to pursue a humanitarian end. Perhaps sensing that if America wills the ends, America really ought to will the means, the administration has now dispatched Predator drones to the skies above Libya. Animate pilots, according to the Beltway buzz, may soon follow.

The conceit here is that President Obama enjoys as much room to maneuver as his rhetoric appears to suggest. In fact, from America’s emergence as a power on the international scene through to the present, the main thrust of U.S. national security policy hasn’t budged: The world will permit nothing else. This unilateral bent has less to do with American exceptionalism, or liberalism, or neoconservatism, or any philosophical preference than it does with the preponderance and immensity of American power. As a result, U.S. policy has boiled down to variations on the same theme, not fundamentally distinct sets of policies.

Where all this leads is clear. Regardless of his own inclinations, President Obama has been presented with successive crises to which he has been obliged, kicking and screaming, to respond. The United Nations has not been able to. Europe has not been able to. Either the United States will respond, or no one will.

“The demilitarization of Europe…,” Gates has said, “has gone from a blessing in the twentieth century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the twenty-first.” This hardly applies in Washington, which spends substantially more on defense than all of Europe’s nations combined. So, deluded about what can be accomplished through mere professions of powerlessness, and advertising their fears as if they were virtues, those who guide the fortunes of the world’s only superpower have embarked upon an experiment in virtual demilitarization.

Lawrence F. Kaplan is a contributing editor for The New Republic.