Barack Obama has been frequently accused in recent of weeks of backing away from the traditional U.S. role of leadership in the Libyan crisis. So it was striking that in his first speech to explain the military intervention--nine days after it began--the president went out of his way to describe himself as fronting the charge against Moammar Gaddafi.
Obama began his address by saying he meant “to update the American people on the international effort that we have led in Libya” — a phrase that may have caused a few people in Paris to spit out their chablis. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, after all, has been widely portrayed as the prime author of the Libyan intervention--and may be banking his reelection campaign on it.
Obama then offered a chronology that went like this: “Gaddafi began attacking his people....so we evacuated our embassy and all Americans who sought our assistance. We then took a series of swift steps in a matter of days to answer Gaddafi’s aggression.” Assets were frozen, a first UN resolution was passed, and “I made it clear that Gaddafi...needed to step down from power.”
Next, according to Obama, “at my direction, America led an effort with our allies at the United Nations Security Council to pass an historic resolution” to impose a no-fly zone and authorize attacks on Gaddafi’s ground forces. When the regime’s forces then threatened to overrun Benghazi, Obama said, “I refused to let that happen...We struck the regime forces approaching Benghazi to save that city and the people within it.”
Judging from all the “Is” in that account, Obama played the part that the world usually expects from the U.S. president: a “leader of the free world” who “makes clear” that there is a threat; “refuses” to accept inaction; and rallies a coalition to respond.
Only that, by all accounts, is not what has happened on Libya.
It was not Obama who first condemned Gaddafi’s attacks on his people, and said he must go. That was Sarkozy. Obama was one of the last to speak up---after Britian’s David Cameron, after Germany’s Angela Merkel, after even Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. The president’s aides explained his silence by saying he was concerned about evacuating US citizens from Libya--but that did not deter the European leaders, some of whom had even more nationals in the country.
Obama also did not initiate the “historic” Security Council resolution he took credit for. That again was Sarkozy, accompanied by Cameron. France and Britain began circulating the no-fly resolution more than a week before Obama came around to supporting it. The administration was publicly skeptical about an intervention; just three days before the resolution passed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with a Libyan opposition leader in Paris but declined to promise any U.S. support.
In fact the administration was torn by internal debates over whether to stop Gaddafi’s offensive. When Obama finally decided in favor of intervention, the dictator’s tanks were on the edge of Benghazi--and it was French warplanes who carried out the first strikes against them.
U.S. forces subsequently have played a decisive role in driving back Gaddafi’s tanks and artillery and destroying his air defenses--and Obama deserves credit for committing them to the fight. But the record of the last few weeks seems pretty clear: Obama did not lead the way into Libya. He was dragged into it through a combination of pressure from allies--beginning with France--and concern about a looming massacre in Benghazi for which the United States would be blamed. As he said in his speech, “the United States has not acted alone.” But it also has not led.