President Obama’s military intervention in Libya reflects the hard times in which he governs. He is recalibrating American power in a world where a financially weakened, politically polarized United States no longer commands but can still lead — if with a lighter touch.
“We should not be afraid to act, but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” the president told the nation Monday night in as explicit a summary of an Obama Doctrine as we are likely to get. He made the stirring appeals to conscience and duty that a wartime leader must. But he also made sure to include sympathy for U.S. taxpayers and the burdens they shoulder as well. His words trace the limits of U.S. activism abroad on his watch.
I confess to some ambivalence about what could be characterized as Obama’s intervention-lite approach. But over the past month he has adeptly balanced diplomacy and the use of force to protect Libyan civilians from wholesale slaughter by Moammar Gaddafi, while advancing less tangible goals of reshaping the politics of the Middle East, and perhaps the world, for the better.
And yet, Obama gets brickbats from right and left at home for his Libya policy. Some critics who argue for inaction seem to fear the unknown so much that they would have tossed aside the lives of tens of thousands of Benghazi residents as well as the important psychological change in the Arab world and at the United Nations that the Libyan crisis has forged. Fortunately, Obama is not that fearful. “We can make a difference,” he said Monday.
And so he has. The allied actions in Libya breathe new life into the concept of humanitarian intervention. They also give vital support to the spreading Arab political uprising at a crucial moment, as it leaps across the Mediterranean into Syria. And Obama has inaugurated a form of burden sharing inside NATO that should be nurtured.
In some ways the most surprising change was the decision by the Arab League to call for outside intervention to stop Gaddafi’s forces from smashing Benghazi. For the first time, the Arab nations formally accepted the logic of the U.N.-blessed “responsibility to protect” doctrine by declaring that one of its blood-stained dictators had gone too far. The participation of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the air operations writes in fire that the people of the region are human beings first, Arab subjects second. That is new.
That Gaddafi routinely plotted to assassinate fellow Arab leaders probably made it easier for them to set this precedent — just as Americans should not ignore the fact that the Libyan leader is a serial killer of U.S. citizens as they seek to explain why other countries in turmoil are spared intervention.
Moreover, Obama has practiced what I have come to believe is the cardinal rule for the success of humanitarian intervention: Neighboring countries must accept and participate in the military actions involved, as they did in the Balkans in the 1990s and in Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s readiness (and political need) to lead militarily in Libya allowed Obama to maneuver the Mediterranean Europeans and Britain into the spotlight of responsibility. By allowing flexibility in NATO command arrangements (despite some Pentagon opposition) Obama opens the door for greater sharing of the real burdens and internal change in the world’s most important military alliance.
Those are not objectives that an American president can proclaim with great clarity if he wants to succeed at them. Obama is well served in this phase of the conflict by the “creative ambiguity” championed by Henry Kissinger.
But playing his cards close to the vest may have contributed to Obama’s one big stumble on Libya: his stubborn refusal to consult seriously with Congress before taking military action. In his uneven dealing with Congress, Obama has come to resemble the Germany that was once said to be either at your throat (Obama in Libya) or at your feet (Obama on health care). This touch of arrogance in the president’s behavior will come back to punish him severely if he pursues increased cooperation with foreign partners and international organizations while denying it to the Senate and House.
Obama’s intervention in Libya is not guaranteed success. But neither is it a sure recipe for failure, as some pretend. He has already made a difference by saving lives and giving space for an Arab revolution to succeed without American ownership. Obama’s actions should inspire support, and hope.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.