President Obama said Moammar Gadhafi's death marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the Libyan people. The seven-month military campaign that toppled the Libyan leader also marks a high point for the kind of international cooperation that Obama has championed.
The White House was careful Thursday not to claim vindication for the president's policies, but the Libyan exercise does offer an example of what an "Obama Doctrine" might look like.
Obama gave much of the credit for Gadhafi's ouster to the Libyan people, but he also called it a demonstration of what collective action by the international community can accomplish.
"Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end," he said.
That outcome was far from assured when the mission began in March. It was only after weeks of international wrangling, and only when rebel forces were about to be overrun, that Obama agreed to join the coordinated attack.
"Make no mistake. Today we are part of a broad coalition. We are answering the calls of a threatened people. And we are acting in the interests of the United States and the world," he said at the time.
Not everyone agreed with Obama. Some wanted the U.S. to stay out of Libya altogether. Others called for a more aggressive attack by U.S. forces alone. Republicans, including former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pounced on the idea that Obama was "leading from behind." Romney told talk radio host Hugh Hewitt that the president was wrong to condition his Libyan action on an OK from the Arab League or the United Nations.
"Without a compass to guide him in our increasingly turbulent world, he's tentative, indecisive, timid and nuanced," Romney said.
But Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes argues that the president's insistence on a coalition effort paid off in more ways than one.
"First of all, it dramatically lowers the cost to the American people. We spent just over a billion dollars, which is dramatically less than we have in recent military interventions," he said. "And also we see a great deal of legitimacy for our actions when we work internationally with other partners and allies."
At the same time, Obama has not been shy about acting unilaterally when he sees a direct threat to the United States. Consider the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound, for example, or last month's attack on Anwar al-Awlaki.
But in cases where the U.S. is not directly threatened, there has long been a tension in foreign policy circles between "idealists" who favor more aggressive efforts to promote democracy and human rights around the world, and "realists," who take a more cautious, hardheaded view of America's interests. In his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009, Obama argued that foreign policy need not be all one or the other. And, Rhodes says, Libya is a good example of that.
"I think you see idealism and realism come together in Libya. We acted on our highest ideals in preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. But we also acted realistically. We didn't overextend ourselves," Rhodes said. "We took the time to build a coalition so that others were sharing the burden. And in that way we were able to protect our interests and our ideals."
But making that decision wasn't easy, and many of the same arguments had to be hashed out within the administration itself. So what should the international community do about the next country where a despotic leader threatens his own people?
"That is one of the hardest questions. Because we can't intervene everywhere doesn't mean we shouldn't intervene where we can, and where we can save lives and advance our interests," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former official in the Obama State Department who now teaches at Princeton University. "But it's more often the case that the political conditions and the military conditions do not align. This kind of intervention is still much more the exception than the rule."
Slaughter adds that the collapse of any government, even one as tyrannical as Gadhafi's, is bound to be followed by a period of uncertainty.
"You don't create stable democratic governments overnight," she said. "And you have to accept that that's going to be part of the bargain when you make these decisions."
Obama acknowledged that Libya has a long and difficult road ahead. But after decades of tolerating tyranny as the price of stability in the region, the administration has concluded that change is the only hope.
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