I was skeptical this past spring when the Obama White House reversed course on Libya. One day it was resolved not to intervene, following advice from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his generals about the foolishness of opening up a third war in the Middle East. The next, Obama was announcing U.S. support for a military operation to protect Libya’s civilian populace from their crazed dictator.
I was even more critical of the process Obama followed: not going to Congress for authorization, skirting the War Powers Resolution, and seeking a Security Council resolution that didn’t match the operations the U.S. and its NATO allies were actually putting in place. My views were fueled by a lifetime of experience with Washington politicians who understate the cost and level of commitment required for military adventures. But with the operations now concluded, it is important to acknowledge that Obama was scrupulous in keeping America’s participation within the limits he described, and that his strategy achieved the desired result in a reasonable time period and at a modest cost. Libya was a significant foreign-policy success for Obama and his team.
On the other hand, Obama took a series of unfortunate shortcuts with U.S. and international law in order to achieve this success. However effective the tactics that toppled Qaddafi may have been, they stretched far beyond the mandate agreed upon by the Security Council. As I argue in this piece for Foreign Policy, this is bad news for the people in Damascus and Hama, as well as for advocates of the notion of responsibility to protect. Obama’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech promised a new kind of leadership, anchored in respect for the rule of law in general and international law in particular. We’re still waiting for some proof that he meant it.