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U.S. pulls back from lead role in conflicts: IISS

US Navy handout photo of an F/A-18 being catapulted off the USS Enterprise in the Red Sea
US Navy handout photo of an F/A-18 being catapulted off the USS Enterprise in the Red Sea

By Adrian Croft

LONDON (Reuters) - A war-weary United States will increasingly look for regional solutions to regional problems, playing a secondary "enabling" role in conflicts similar to the one it played in Libya, an influential think-tank said on Tuesday.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said U.S. leadership was giving way to a world where "rotating coalitions of the willing and available," sometimes without the United States, would address international crises.

The conduct of the air campaign in Libya, where the United States took a back seat in military operations led by its NATO allies Britain and France, could be a pointer to the future, the London-based security research body said.

"The (U.S.) choice in Libya was to be a 'super-enabler' of a European operation with Arab support. These inclinations signal the dawning of a period when 'regional solutions to regional problems' becomes ... a central aspiration of U.S. strategic policy," IISS Director-General John Chipman said, presenting the think-tank's annual "Strategic Survey."

U.S. warplanes took part in early attacks on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi's air defenses but pulled back to a supporting role after NATO took control of operations.

President Barack Obama faced resistance in Washington to getting involved in a third conflict in the Muslim world in addition to the costly, unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Obama and the people around him do really believe that America's long-term role can only be sustainable if we are not doing everything, if we are in a position of being an enabler," said Dana Allin, an IISS expert on U.S. foreign policy.

American and European preoccupation with domestic economic problems had created wider uncertainties over international leadership, the IISS said.

STRATEGIC ARTHRITIS

"There is a sense that the West is suffering from strategic arthritis and exhaustion (and) the rising powers of the East from strategic growth pains and indecision," Chipman said.

"The room for mavericks and rogues to maneuver for their own gain is thus expanded," he said without naming any.

The IISS said war fatigue would shape the U.S. approach to international crises in the medium term.

Ten years after the September 11 attacks triggered a "war on terror," the West's appetite to take military action was lower than it had been for generations, the IISS report said.

The case for "liberal interventionism" could still be made -- as it was in Libya -- but calls for it had to be loud and the cause almost perfect for it to happen.

Obama's approach in Afghanistan "in effect to drop the ambitious counter-insurgency strategy, withdraw forces and prioritize a political solution, will be seen as signaling the end of a decade-long U.S. interventionist policy," Chipman said.

The United States is withdrawing 33,000 of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of next summer, aiming to hand lead security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.

More than 1,600 U.S. soldiers have died in the 10-year war which has cost nearly $450 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Europe's strategic ambitions had been crippled by its weak economic performance, the IISS report said. Defense budgets were being cut and Europe's political leadership was having to put its financial house together again, it said.

The IISS said revolts in Arab countries would not necessarily lead to the spread of democracy in the region.

"The transitions that have taken place so far remain half-baked and the promise of more democratic outcomes remains laced with the risk that sects, military institutions or other groups might still hijack the process," Chipman warned.

(Reporting by Adrian Croft; Editing by Paul Taylor)

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