Libya may have been less a precedent than a case study in the president's blend of pragmatism and idealism.
When President Obama gathered his national security team in the White House situation room on March 15, the question on the table was Libya - to intervene, or not to intervene.
The debate was furious between the proponents and the skeptics of the United States undertaking a military operation - simply put, a war - in yet another Muslim country.
In the heated White House discussion, proponents of action against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi warned of a pending bloodbath in the rebel-held city of Benghazi if nothing was done. Skeptics warned of unforeseen consequences and a slippery slope to deeper involvement.
Ultimately Mr. Obama gave the green light, and the US led the first week of airstrikes that culminated in the establishment of a no-fly zone before turning over international command and control to NATO. Addressing the nation on March 28, the president said the US had a "responsibility to act" to prevent a humanitarian disaster that would have "stained the conscience of the world."
For America to stand by and watch a massacre "of our fellow human beings," he added, would have been a "betrayal of who we are."
Obama's decision to intervene has led to speculation over the dawning of an Obama doctrine. Was Libya setting a precedent for future military actions under this president when other despots turned their guns on their own people?
The answer would seem to be a clear "no." In explaining his decision on Libya, Obama has emphasized how "unique" the Libyan case is as much as he has made the case for international action.
But what Obama has revealed - both in his response to Libya and to the turmoil across the Middle East more broadly - is, if not a doctrine, then a set of principles that guide his foreign-policy and national-security decisionmaking. Multilateralism figures at the top of the list, but it includes a new emphasis on the duties of other powers (and a growing array of powers) in the world as well as a hesitance to use military power - positions that some critics portray as an abdication of American leadership.
Obama's lofty images of an America that intervenes on the side of good aside, it was probably the private White House deliberations on Libya that gave a truer picture of this president's approach to foreign policy. As the debate proceeded at that March 15 meeting, Obama homed in on one overriding question: Can this work, and what would it take from the US for an international intervention to be successful? In particular, he focused on the need for a strong enough United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to virtually guarantee that any international intervention could achieve its goals.
Still a cautious realist
His focus then on the practical limitations that would determine whether the use of force could be successful - rather than on the idealistic impulses for intervention - suggests that Obama remains what he was when he took office two years ago: a cautious realist in his worldview and in his conception of the uses of American power.
"I don't think a whole lot has changed in Obama's approach to foreign policy," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If you step back from the military operation in Libya and ask how this administration has responded to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they have been cautious, guided by likely outcomes rather than by an ideological agenda, and they have stayed behind the curve," he says. "That's all to say I see pragmatism in command here."
Which doesn't mean that Obama's invoking of moral imperatives to justify the Libyan intervention was not genuine. As Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist and chronicler of Obama's foreign policy decisionmaking, likes to say, the long-competing strains of US foreign policy - the idealism and the pragmatism, the interventionist tug yet the impulse to have the US mind its own affairs - occupy this president's head like two roommates. …