The Obama doctrine

Our view: The president lays out a nuanced rationale for the U.S. military intervention in Libya, where they may be no easy answers

March 29, 2011

President Obama's explanation for his decision to participate in the attacks on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces will likely not satisfy his critics on either side, and it certainly came much later than it should have. But it did present a cohesive explanation for why we intervened and a reasonable framework for decisions about whether we will do so in other conflicts.

The president said the U.S. acted to prevent a looming humanitarian disaster if pro-Gadhafi forces had been allowed to crush the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and methodically slaughter thousands of the city's inhabitants, as the dictator had boasted he would do. Mr. Obama also noted the destabilizing effect a flood of refugees across Libya's borders would have on the fragile democratic transitions in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the lessons other tyrants in region might draw from seeing the U.S. sit idly by as the Libyan government massacred its own citizens.

Given those risks, Mr. Obama was right to insist that U.S. military intervention was not only a moral imperative in defense of core U.S. values but also a strategic necessity to prevent the turmoil in Libya from undermining stability across the region. In making the case for a vigorous U.S. response, however, Mr. Obama was also careful to stress that America cannot be the world's policeman and that in cases where its vital interests are not directly at stake, as in Libya, it can only undertake such missions in close cooperation with its allies and with broad backing from the international community.

That's unlikely to win over conservative critics who charge the administration was far too slow to commit American forces to supporting Libya's rebels and thus missed the chance to oust Mr. Gadhafi during the first days of the uprising. Nor will it placate critics on the left who accuse the administration of entering an open-ended conflict with no clear exit strategy, leading to the possibility that U.S. forces could be bogged down by a protracted civil war that allowed Mr. Gadhafi to remain in power indefinitely. Nonetheless, Mr. Obama seemed to be trying to satisfy both ends of the spectrum by insisting that the U.S.-led coalition was authorized by the United Nations only to protect Libyan civilians, not to topple the regime — even as he repeated his demand that Mr. Gadhafi must go.

This has caused confusion over the ultimate goals of the U.S. intervention and much carping about the constraints imposed on American power by the need to hold a wartime coalition together. Mr. Obama admitted as much when he said the coalition of European, Arab and African states backing the no-fly zone over Libya and the humanitarian relief effort there would disintegrate if the U.S. exceeded the U.N. mandate.

But even if our mission and rationale aren't simple, Mr. Obama appears to have gotten the basics right in his approach to the situation in Libya, including the decision to hand off leadership of military and relief efforts to NATO this week. While there's no guarantee the combination of air power, naval blockade and seizure of Mr. Gadhafi's assets in foreign banks will be enough by themselves to force him from power, the relentless pressure applied by those actions will surely weaken his grip on the country and gradually peel away support among his military. Eventually, at least some coalition partners may conclude the U.N. mandate authorizing "all necessary means" to protect Libyan civilians includes arming the rebels so they can protect themselves against the pro-Gadhafi forces' superior firepower. At that point, the dictator may well decide to seek an exit.

Nothing is certain in war, but the U.S.-led coalition so far appears to have made good progress on both military and diplomatic fronts. The Libyan air force has been grounded, the regime's march on Benghazi reversed, and Mr. Gadhafi now finds himself on the defensive inside an ever-tightening ring of coalition air strikes, economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Despite his apparent hesitation initially, Mr. Obama has orchestrated a powerful array of forces against the Libyan dictator that ultimately will force him from power one way or the other.

Critics have derided the so-called Obama doctrine — which essentially allows for unilateral U.S. action whenever our security or other vital interests are directly threatened but constrains us to work with allies and the international community in situations, like Libya, where our values and sense of decency compel us to act — as confusing and inconsistent. The real problem for these critics is that Mr. Obama's way of thinking is driven by a pragmatic assessment of facts on the ground, not ideology. In a complicated world it neither commits us to isolationism nor reflexive intervention, not to multilateralism or unilateralism, but instead offers a great deal of nuance and flexibility to use force where it is needed and can do the most good. If that sounds more complicated than the with-us-or-against-us rhetoric of the Bush years, it is, and that's a good thing.

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