From the crucible of the Arab Awakening, U.S. President Barack Obama is forging an “Obama doctrine” guiding the use of American military power in a troubled world. It’s no easy sell. Some regard his intervention in Libya’s civil war as opportunistic, driven more by pragmatism than principle. Others fault him for getting too deeply involved, or too little. It’s all a bit harsh.
While Obama undeniably is a pragmatist, he appears to have been guided by more than mererealpolitik in taking on Moammar Gadhafi’s war machine. The markers Obama laid down in his national address this week is proof of that. If a new U.S. doctrine is taking shape, it is one the wider world can buy into. That matters to Canadians, now that our own Lt.-Gen. Charles Bouchard commands the allied campaign.
Off the top, Obama prudently acknowledged that “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs.” At the same time he said he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” He doesn’t want another Rwanda on his watch.
In truth, Gadhafi could not be ignored. He was gearing up to inflict “violence on a horrific scale,” as Obama pointed out. Moreover, the U.S. had “a unique ability” to avert a slaughter, even without putting troops on the ground. The UN Security Council, dusting off its own responsibility-to-protect doctrine, provided “an international mandate” to protect civilians, though not to force regime change. The U.S., while leading the attack, was backed up by a “broad coalition” including France, Britain and Canada. Libya’s natural Arab allies were onside. Libyans themselves issued a “plea for help.”
Collectively, these criteria fulfill many of the conditions for a “just war,” as understood by philosophers through the ages. The U.S. was acting in a just cause to prevent a worse evil, under a lawful mandate, as a last resort, with probability of success.
This approach differs sharply from that of George W. Bush, whose national security strategy was unapologetically unilateralist, UN-indifferent, and aggressively pre-emptive. Ultimately it led to the U.S. invasion in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein on the bogus pretext that he had weapons of mass destruction, without a lawful UN mandate and without the support of Canada and some other close allies. It was a fiasco from which the U.S. has yet to fully recover. And unlike Bill Clinton, who turned a blind eye to Rwanda’s genocide, Obama could not bring himself to look the other way.
Having sketched out his approach to using military force, Obama still faces tough decisions in Libya and elsewhere. Should the U.S. recognize the rebels? Arm them? What if Gadhafi hangs on? Will Obama let Libyans fight it out, come what may? And is the U.S. prepared to act if another despot – in Yemen, Sudan, Ivory Coast, Syria — threatens mass slaughter? There are no easy answers.
Even so, Obama is on firm ground acting on a strong UN mandate, in a good cause, and forging a multilateral coalition that is willing to share the burden. If the “Obama doctrine” is a work in progress, it is tilting in the right direction.