President Barack Obama this week sought to reassure an uneasy U.S. public that military intervention in Libya is warranted, that his administration has clear objectives, and that the international community is prepared to share in the burdens and risks. He also signaled a distinctive vision of U.S. global leadership, based on multilateral cooperation.
The president made a solid case that intervention was a moral imperative, justified to prevent a massacre of Libyan civilians that would have "stained the conscience of the world." At the same time, he defined U.S. objectives as limited to "the task of protecting the Libyan people," explicitly disavowing regime change as a U.S. goal, much less the insertion of U.S. combat troops. This unusual combination of armed humanitarianism and military self-restraint will satisfy neither realists--who complain that the nation has no security stakes in Libya--nor neoconservative (or progressive) interventionists--who insist on Qaddafi's ouster and the installation of a democratic regime. But it is a prudent middle course for the United States, which seeks to avert mass atrocities but has little desire to "own" another Iraq or Afghanistan.
If the ends of U.S. policy remain controversial, so do the means. Critics have attacked the Obama administration for lashing itself to the mast of multilateralism, thereby limiting its freedom of action and forcing itself to fight a war by committee. The president's speech on Monday provides an effective rejoinder. By securing a UN Security Council resolution authorizing "all necessary means," gaining diplomatic buy-in from the Arab League, and winning agreement from NATO allies to assume command of the mission, the United States has secured essential global legitimacy and the promise of burden-sharing by coalition members. These benefits outweigh inevitable transaction costs of cumbersome multilateral diplomacy. At the same time, one must remember that all coalitions have limited half-lives.
The vision of the United States as community organizer, if you will, seems classic Obama. But there are echoes of the Clinton administration here. In May 1993, Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff undiplomatically suggested that the United States lacked the resources to continue running the world. Although his administration quickly disavowed such thinking, it championed "assertive multilateralism" as a way to share global burdens and win support for U.S. purposes. In transferring command of Libya military operations to NATO, the Obama administration is walking a similar path. Not the "Tarnoff Doctrine" (NYT), perhaps, but the "Hand-Off" Doctrine.
This cannot imply standing on the sideline as others run with the ball in Libya, however, particularly when it comes to setting political direction for the coalition. As forty governments and international bodies met Tuesday in London to form a "Contact Group" (Reuters) for Libya, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials helped to mobilize international pressure on Qaddafi to leave. There are many other difficult decisions to come, from arming rebels to planning for a post-Qaddafi government, which will require strong U.S. input. In facing these controversial issues, the United States may well be torn between maintaining the broadest possible coalition and marshalling a subset of like-minded allies that share its specific vision of Libya's future.