The debate was furious between the proponents and the skeptics of the United States undertaking a military operation – simply put, a war – in yet another Muslim country.
In the heated White House discussion, proponents of action against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi warned of a pending bloodbath in the rebel-held city of Benghazi if nothing was done. Skeptics warned of unforeseen consequences and a slippery slope to deeper involvement.
Ultimately Mr. Obama gave the green light, and the US led the first week of airstrikes that culminated in the establishment of a no-fly zone before turning over international command and control to NATO. Addressing the nation on March 28, the president said the US had a "responsibility to act" to prevent a humanitarian disaster that would have "stained the conscience of the world."
For America to stand by and watch a massacre "of our fellow human beings," he added, would have been a "betrayal of who we are."
Obama's decision to intervene has led to speculation over the dawning of an Obama doctrine. Was Libya setting a precedent for future military actions under this president when other despots turned their guns on their own people?
The answer would seem to be a clear "no." In explaining his decision on Libya, Obama has emphasized how "unique" the Libyan case is as much as he has made the case for international action.
But what Obama has revealed – both in his response to Libya and to the turmoil across the Middle East more broadly – is, if not a doctrine, then a set of principles that guide his foreign-policy and national-security decisionmaking. Multilateralism figures at the top of the list, but it includes a new emphasis on the duties of other powers (and a growing array of powers) in the world as well as a hesitance to use military power – positions that some critics portray as an abdication of American leadership.
Obama's lofty images of an America that intervenes on the side of good aside, it was probably the private White House deliberations on Libya that gave a truer picture of this president's approach to foreign policy. As the debate proceeded at that March 15 meeting, Obama homed in on one overriding question: Can this work, and what would it take from the US for an international intervention to be successful? In particular, he focused on the need for a strong enough United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to virtually guarantee that any international intervention could achieve its goals.
Still a cautious realist
His focus then on the practical limitations that would determine whether the use of force could be successful – rather than on the idealistic impulses for intervention – suggests that Obama remains what he was when he took office two years ago: a cautious realist in his worldview and in his conception of the uses of American power.
"I don't think a whole lot has changed in Obama's approach to foreign policy," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "If you step back from the military operation in Libya and ask how this administration has responded to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, they have been cautious, guided by likely outcomes rather than by an ideological agenda, and they have stayed behind the curve," he says. "That's all to say I see pragmatism in command here."
Which doesn't mean that Obama's invoking of moral imperatives to justify the Libyan intervention was not genuine. As Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist and chronicler of Obama's foreign policy decisionmaking, likes to say, the long-competing strains of US foreign policy – the idealism and the pragmatism, the interventionist tug yet the impulse to have the US mind its own affairs – occupy this president's head like two roommates.
Both the soaring appeals to America's moral authority in the world and Obama's pragmatism were on display in the president's March 28 address explaining the Libya intervention.
"Given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action," Obama said. Then he added: "But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right."
From the day the Obamas moved into the White House, presidential scholars and foreign-policy analysts have pored over this president's words and actions for signs of an Obama doctrine. Was it simply multilateralism, as opposed to George W. Bush's unilateralism? Was a willingness to engage America's adversaries or former enemies, like Iran, Syria, Russia, or Cuba, his defining principle? Or was it a return to a traditional American internationalism based on the global institutions whose establishment the US had spearheaded?
In the days following the launch of airstrikes on Libya, a rush of commentary focused on how "cool Obama" – who had maintained a steely focus on long-term strategic goals when Iranian protesters had faced their government's bullets in June 2009 – had this time been swayed by emotional appeals.
The liberal hawks of his national security team had prevailed upon the president to employ American military force to prevent a massacre at the hands of a regime. In short, the proclamations proliferated of a new Obama doctrine for using force in the name of humanitarian intervention.
But is that what it was? In reality, Obama's deliberations on Libya – what some critics called dithering – and his preoccupation with "what can work" told a different story.
It may just be that the word "doctrine" isn't right to use in conjunction with this president. As policy analysts and even members of the Obama staff have concluded, there is little that is "doctrinaire" about Obama's approach to foreign and national security policy.
A set of guiding principles
But Obama's actions over more than two years of an often surprisingly intense international agenda have allowed for gleaning at least a set of guiding principles for American foreign policy.
Among the key elements, in addition to multilateralism: American leadership is still often indispensable but must recognize – and even increasingly stand back in – a world of emerging new powers; and the use of US military power must not be a first impulse but only a last resort.
"If you had to sum up in a few words Obama's vision of international intervention, it would be 'multilateral if we can, unilateral only if we must, and the military should not be the first option,' " says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington and a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration.
Another hallmark of Obama's foreign policy, Mr. Korb says, is "distinguishing between a vital national interest, and what is nice to have." If Obama ended up siding with the interventionists in his midst on Libya, several administration officials have said, it was in no small measure because he concluded that a failure to prevent Mr. Qaddafi from carrying out his professed intentions could have had a potentially devastating impact across a roiling Middle East, and thus on US interests.
America in the back seat
Still, other foreign-policy experts take a dim view of Obama's vision of America's role in the world, especially in what they see as its encouragement of a world of increasingly diffuse power and its elevation of multilateral action to "prerequisite status" for US international involvement.
"Where the Bush doctrine was 'as much multilateralism as possible, as much unilateralism as necessary,' the Obama administration is establishing something very different: 'Unless there is multilateralism, we cannot and will not act,' " says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
"What strikes me is an embarrassment about American power," he adds, "and that's something that sets Obama apart from his Republican and Democratic predecessors."
Mr. Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations agrees that if anything is new about Obama, if there is something that may end up distinguishing him from other foreign-policy pragmatists, it is his experiment with taking a back seat to other powers in leading the way on international interventions. "The governing mantra since World War II has been, 'America is out in front,' so it's quite striking how prominent the administration's focus is on letting others take the lead," he says. "It's really kind of revolutionary."
Indeed, Obama presents the hand-off of command of the Libya operation to NATO, and America's shift from the lead to a "supporting role," as accomplishments. "Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well," Obama declared in his Libya speech.
But Professor Lieber frowns on this new direction Obama has taken, saying it reflects an administration interested more in process – in this case, nurturing the emergence of responsible new powers in the world – over substance.
"There is nothing inevitable about a sea change in America's leadership role in the world, but a president who believes the time has come for America to take a back seat will certainly have an impact," Lieber says. "What they [in the administration] don't seem to grasp is that the alternative to American leadership is not that some other country steps in and continues in America's footsteps." Instead, he adds, it's that "the force behind America's unique position in the world would be lost."
Is Libya a precedent?
Another question raised by the debate over the emergence of an Obama doctrine is this: Does Libya now become the precedent for US intervention in future humanitarian crises? If Syria's Bashar al-Assad follows his father's lead and starts bombing rebellious villages, does the US lead the charge to stop him?
Would Obama's response be markedly different now if the Iranian regime again fired on its own people?
Many foreign-policy analysts think not. "I understand the argument suggesting an Obama doctrine – that intervention for humanitarian purposes and at the behest of the [UN] Security Council establishes a precedent that could guide US policy from now on – but my guess is that won't be the case," says Andrew Bacevich, an international relations expert at Boston University. For one thing, he says, there are just too many cases of repressive leaders raining terror down on their people.
Obama himself in his March 28 speech was clear about the factors that allowed the US to jump in this time. The Libyan people and regional organizations were demanding it, an international coalition was forming that could take over the lead role, and the conditions on the ground suggested an intervention would work.
Those are not circumstances that are likely to come together again anytime soon.
"I don't expect to suddenly see international military coalitions in Ivory Coast, Yemen, and Syria," says Kupchan. "Libya was a one-off for this administration, and not the beginning of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention."