Monday, March 28, 2011
Perils and Opportunities for Obama in Libya - NYTimes.com
Politicians define themselves by choosing enemies, and exemplars. Suddenly, President Obama’s choices on Libya are reshaping his profile in unpredictable ways as he heads into the 2012 election season.
The president and his advisers have already highlighted the central factors that influenced Mr. Obama’s decision to act militarily, a process he plans to explain more fully to the nation at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
In Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Obama saw an autocrat on the verge of committing mass murder.
In Bill Clinton, he saw a president who chose not to stop such atrocities and later regretted it.
In George W. Bush, he saw a go-it-alone style of intervention ill suited to the transformative forces now sweeping across the Middle East.
Those judgments produced the diplomatically chaotic, militarily complicated and strategically ambiguous Libyan action by the United States and an array of allies. Mr. Obama calls it not an act of war but rather a quickly arranged and temporary humanitarian response representing “how the international community should work.”
Yet his choices face withering questions from friends and foes alike. A rapid departure by Colonel Qaddafi and American forces would quiet them; an extended commitment would undercut his oft-repeated focus on economic revival at home.
“If Jeffersonian Democrats take over in Libya, he’s a hero,” said Robert Borosage, who directs the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “If he gets stuck in an ongoing civil war, then it could be enormously costly to the country, and to him politically.”
At minimum, Mr. Obama has introduced a new measure of his performance that almost no one would have expected when he defined his 2008 candidacy, in part, by his opposition to the Iraq war.
Action and Reaction
Presidential aspirants, in what they offer, and voters, in whom they support, typically react to the immediate past.
After the scandals of Richard M. Nixon, Jimmy Carter promised virtue. After Mr. Carter gained a reputation for small-bore fecklessness, Ronald Reagan pledged robust leadership that did not sweat the details. After George H. W. Bush won the Persian Gulf war, Bill Clinton vowed to focus on an ailing economy.
And after the younger Mr. Bush embraced his role as “war president,” Mr. Obama stood out among his major challengers as an opponent of the Iraq war since 2002, even before it started.
Mr. Obama said then that he opposed “dumb” wars, not all of them. By increasing forces in Afghanistan, President Obama fulfilled a pledge to reinvigorate a mission he argued Mr. Bush had neglected.
The Libya intervention is different. Mr. Obama initiated it, applying two lessons drawn from his predecessors.
One is the “responsibility to protect” innocents from slaughter, as Mr. Clinton failed to do in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Mr. Obama judged Colonel Qaddafi’s vow to show Libyan rebels “no mercy” such a case.
The second is the need for greater international coordination than Mr. Bush relied upon. Mr. Obama did not commit American forces until NATO allies, the Arab League and the United Nations backed the idea — and only for the stated purpose of protecting civilians, not to satisfy his separate call for Colonel Qaddafi’s ouster.
The result: a unique set of political risks and rewards all Mr. Obama’s own.
Great, if It Works
Bruce W. Jentleson, a Duke University professor, Clinton administration veteran and part-time adviser to Mr. Obama’s State Department, called the intervention crucial to the president’s foreign policy and overall political standing.
“If this succeeds,” he said, “he will have demonstrated he’s a president who can make multilateralism work, and use American power in ways that are effective for a 21st-century world.”
Yet Mr. Obama faces skeptics across the political spectrum.
“It should not be assumed that a massacre or genocide was about to happen,” asserted Richard Haass, a veteran of both Bush administrations who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Colonel Qaddafi, he said, may have been seeking merely to intimidate potential foes. It also is not clear, Mr. Haass added, that Libyan rebels are more humane, democratic or friendly to American interests.
Among Democrats, some liberals support using force for humanitarian purposes. But as Mr. Obama prepares his 2012 campaign, Mr. Borosage predicted “greater and greater restiveness” over a new military commitment amid persistent economic distress.
A Gallup survey last week showed only about half of Americans backed the intervention, about the same proportion as backed the 1999 NATO airstrikes in Kosovo that Mr. Clinton authorized for humanitarian reasons. That finding underscored the political burden Mr. Obama has taken on.
“Approval will almost invariably go down from here,” said Scott Althaus, an expert on war and public opinion at the University of Illinois. “There’s little historical evidence that support can be sustained at even this modest level for very long.”