Libya: test case for the 'Obama doctrine'

President Obama was clear and decisive in his speech about Libya. But that does not mean the way ahead is easy. The 'Obama doctrine' of ceding more responsibility to coalition partners has its risks.

For all the criticism of President Obama as a “ditherer” on Libya, in his speech last night he came across as decisive and clear. However, don’t confuse decisiveness with simplicity.

The president’s rationale for past and future American action in Libya was as subtle and complex as the Arab world today – a reflection of the unpredictable and historic democratic uprising there and of the president’s own deliberative style.

Mr. Obama plainly laid out a middle course, which by its very nature is nuanced. America has chosen to not sit back as a tyrant brutally attacks his own freedom-seeking people, he said. Too much is at stake: a humanitarian crisis; the message that a lack of response would send to other dictators in the region; the budding democracies trying to bloom in Libya’s neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt.

At the same time, the United States will not go so far as to pursue regime change in Libya through military force, he added. Not enough is at stake: Libya is not a direct threat to America. And recent history in Iraq – an eight-year effort, trillion-dollar outlay, and thousands of American and Iraqi lives – “is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya,” the president rightly concluded.

Instead, the United States will play a limited, “supporting role” in a NATO-led military effort to protect the people of Libya, while working with American coalition partners to push out Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi “through nonmilitary means.” Indeed, that was a topic of discussion at an international meeting attended by US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in London today.

What Americans are witnessing is the first meaningful test case of the “Obama doctrine” – multilateral military action in which the US seeks to shift a greater share of the burden to other countries when America’s safety is not directly threatened. By definition, this approach limits America’s role and may not result in ousting Mr. Qaddafi.

Coalition building is not new. President George W. Bush built a “coalition of the willing” in 2003 to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Earlier, President George H.W. Bush built a coalition to dislodge Iraqi troops from Kuwait when they invaded in 1990. But the elder Bush limited America’s engagement, deciding not to chase the Iraqis all the way to Baghdad and overthrow Hussein.

What’s experimental with Obama is the giving over of responsibility to others, as the US will do when NATO takes over the Libyan campaign on Wednesday. More burden-sharing has its advantages: less cost for the US, a greater sharing of risk, and less American swagger – the latter has caused considerable resentment of the US around the world.

On the other hand, ceding control carries risks. If the US steps away, who will step forward? Leadership by committee could mean the avoidance of tough choices – or no decisions at all, if squabbling sets in. Compromise might work with legislation on Capitol Hill, but perhaps not so well when it comes to America’s security interests.

Obama’s speech was welcome, though it should have come before the bombing in Libya – and after greater consultation with Congress. His reasoning for limited action seems justified. But limited does not necessarily mean quick and easy. Once the bombs fall, the ground moves. How it will shift is hard to predict.

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