President Obama’s Libya Triumph: A Great Foreign-Policy Presidency

Events in Libya put Obama on the road to being a truly great foreign-policy president. By Michael Tomasky.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Barack Obama hasn’t been much of a domestic-policy president from nearly anyone’s point of view. And it’s a little hard to picture how he might ever be seen as such—that is to say, even if he’s reelected, he’ll probably have a Republican House or Senate (or both) that will thwart him at every turn, so the best he’ll be able to say is that he presided over a slow and very difficult economic recovery, which presumably will finally happen by January 2017. But foreign policy could be a completely different story. Here one can see how he might become not just a good but a great foreign-policy president.

Yes, of course, let’s stipulate: the war isn’t actually, you know, over. And even after it is, Libya could descend into chaos or extremism or both (although it is heartening to read that the National Transitional Council, the recognized new governing body, apparently has detailed governance plans in place). So could Egypt, and Tunisia, and so on and so on. Lots of things could, can, and undoubtedly will go wrong. Let’s also stipulate that Obama did not drape himself only in glory on Libya. The administration’s statement in June that the conflict wasn’t under the purview of the War Powers Act because bombing didn’t constitute “hostilities” was ridiculous. And many critics reasonably felt back in March that Obama was a little slow to pull the trigger on the intervention (I didn’t share that view).

All that said, the administration has already handled a lot of these changes well (and in the face of absolutely constant know-it-all criticism). One of the best things an American administration can do when big changes are afoot somewhere in the world is stay out of the way and not act as if we can will an outcome just because we’re America. We have a group in this country that likes to will outcomes, and their track record demonstrates that that doesn’t work so well (unless you think, apropos Iraq, that eight years and more than 100,000 lives later defines “well”). Obama has been more in the mold of George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, Jim Baker, when the Eastern bloc was throwing off Moscow’s shackles. Offer encouragement and stability, give a few speeches about freedom, but otherwise let them do their own work.

Obama took a lot of stick for not being more forceful on Egypt in February, but he was right to be cautious—there were lots of stakeholders involved, and sorry, but the president of the United States just can’t say every sweet thing romantics would like him to say. He then, as noted, took heat for moving too slowly on Libya, but here again he was correct. The nature of the Libyan regime is not a direct national-security issue, so there absolutely had to be a specific trigger to justify acting. That trigger was Gaddafi’s threatened assault on Benghazi.

That was completely the right thing to do. It was as textbook a fulfillment of “R2P,” or “responsibility to protect,” as one could imagine. The subsequent bombing campaign took longer than advertised, but it has apparently done the job, quickly and with far smaller loss of life (including zero U.S. deaths) than if we’d followed John McCain and Lindsey Graham’s advice and gone in with ground troops.

Next comes Syria. Conservatives are pushing Obama to take stronger steps. Maybe he should. I argued back in the spring, before Obama imposed sanctions on Assad, that he needed to be more forceful. But now he has imposed those sanctions and said Assad should step down. Doing much more seems dubious. Bashar al-Assad will go. It’s a matter of when. Better to let it play out. If a true R2P situation arises, then Obama will have to make some decisions. But it’s far better to let the Syrians do this themselves, if they can. We cannot prevent every casualty.

That’s starting to sound like a doctrine to me. Call it the doctrine of no doctrine: using our power and influence but doing so prudently and multilaterally, with the crucial recognition that Egypt is different from Libya is different from Syria is different from someplace else. According to the foreign-policy establishment, if you want to have a self-respecting big-D doctrine, you’re not supposed to recognize differences. The doctrine must guide all cases. But that is exactly the kind of thinking that has led—always—to tragedy. The Truman Doctrine was never meant to be applied to Vietnam. The Bush Doctrine was applied to Iraq based on a series of lies told to the American people. And so on. If the Obama Doctrine is nothing like those, so much the better.

This does not yet greatness make. These dramatic changes have to work out for the better, and here the United States has a huge role to play. With respect to Libya, for example, we have control of about $37 billion in assets we can dole out to the transitional council. And yes, we probably are interested in its oil. But that doesn’t have to mean stealing it. All the Western countries that backed the rebels have to play a constructive and non- (forgive me for such a dated word) imperialist role in helping the country build its future.

So there’s work to be done. But it’s hardly impossible to envision an Obama administration in a few years’ time that has drawn down Afghanistan and Iraq, helped foster reforms and maybe even the growth of a couple of democracies around the Middle East, and restored the standing of a country that Bush had laid such staggering waste. And killed Osama bin Laden. If this is weak America-hating, count me in.