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Anyone Seen 20,000 Libyan Missiles?

ABC News reports that Muammar Qaddafi’s surface-to-air missile stockpiles have gone missing without much of a trace. This nightmare cuts to the most dangerous problem with Barack Obama’s lead-from-behind Libya strategy: it’s bad.

The word “triumphalism” came to be synonymous with the Bush administration and the Iraq war. But Tripoli had barely fallen when Obama supporters like Fareed Zakaria declared the effort, literally, a model victory: “The Libyan intervention offers a new model for the West,” he wrote in Time, explaining that it was “a new model in that it involved an America that insisted on legitimacy and burden sharing, that allowed the locals to own their revolution.” And to own about 20,000 of their dictator’s missiles.

“I think the probability of al-Qaeda being able to smuggle some of the stinger-like missiles out of Libya is probably pretty high,” says former White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke. If the great risk of American assertiveness was that it caused supposed “blowback” among impacted populations, the problem with American constraint is one of terrorist facilitation. In Libya we were only ever half in, at best. We took our time and kept our distance—and left weapons stockpiles out for the taking. At the UN last week, Obama cited Libya as “a lesson in what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one.” It sure is.

And something tells me the international community wouldn’t mind a return of the American World Police right about now. Terrorists use surface-to-air missiles to target internationalism itself, in the form of air travel. In response to the crisis, the U.S. is going to expand its presence in post-Qaddafi Libya, something my colleague Max Boot wisely recommended a long time ago.

In a perfect tragicomic remark, Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Shapiro told ABC News, “We’re making great progress and we expect in the coming days and weeks we will have a much greater picture of how many [missiles] are missing.” If figuring out how bad off you are is great progress, then we’re all moving toward a smashing success.

This disaster is also a lesson on American interests. In a post-9/11 world, vital national interests are not what they used to be. In May, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said of Libya, “I don’t think it’s a vital interest of the United States.” In the traditional sense of neighborhood, power, and reach, he was right. But if 20,000 stinger missiles were at risk of disappearing in the island nation of Tonga, that dot in the South Pacific would become a vital interest for America. This is a burdensome reality that can’t be wished away or shared with an under-resourced international community.

There are still responsibilities that can’t be seen to with drone strikes, troop withdrawals, diplomatic gestures, or multilateralism. If America continues to shirk its global duties, terrorists and other bad actors will continue to see their fortunes rise. That this is a new model for the West is undoubtedly true.