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
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. …