The words “vacillating” and “aimless” are commonly used by both left and right to describe President Barack Obama’s approach to the Libya war. His political friends and foes alike lament that he has no clear goal in Libya—and that, by failing to articulate one, he is revealing his unease at having been dragged into the fight to oust the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.
Democratic Senator James Webb of Virginia issued a press release on March 21, 2011, noting that the U.S. mission in Libya “lacks clarity.” Former Republican Senator Slade Gorton wrote in the Washington Post: “We should never enter a war halfway and with an indecisive goal. Regrettably, that is where we stand today.”
The criticism has some validity, but it misses an important point: the administration’s approach has logic and coherence in the service of strategic considerations that extend far beyond Libya.
Since his campaign in 2007 and 2008, Barack Obama has declared that he wants to transform America’s role in world affairs. And now, in the third year of his term, we can see how he is bringing about that transformation. The United States under Barack Obama is less assertive, less dominant, less power-minded, less focused on the American people’s particular interests, and less concerned about preserving U.S. freedom of action. It is true that he did not simply pull the plug on the war in Iraq, as he promised he would do, and that he increased the commitment of troops in Afghanistan. But those compromises reflect the president’s pragmatic judgment about the art of the possible, not his conviction about what kind of country America should ultimately become.
Obama determined early on, as the Libyan revolt developed, that no outcome would be more important to him than keeping the United States within the bounds set by the United Nations Security Council. He refused to act on Libya until the Arab League and the UNSC gave approval. He immediately renounced U.S. leadership of the military intervention—and when, due to default by U.S. allies, his own commanders had to take charge at the outset, he insisted they promptly pass the mission to NATO, which they did.
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