WASHINGTON -- President Obama's decision to participate in the air campaign against Moammar Gaddafi's regime is a vast improvement over previous policy, a victory for human rights idealists within the administration, and the application of an important international standard known as "the responsibility to protect."
In 2005 -- with the gruesome lessons of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia having finally sunk in -- the United Nations General Assembly and the United States, followed in 2006 by the Security Council, endorsed the principle that the prevention of mass atrocities trumps the claim of national sovereignty. When a government engages in genocide, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity -- effectively waging war against its own citizens -- other nations have the right and duty to intervene. In Libya, this abstract norm became a basis for action. The Obama administration deserves credit for its part in establishing this precedent.
But Obama took his self-congratulation a step further. This intervention, in his view, is not merely an emergency response (if belated); it is "precisely how the international community should work." Obama claims his Libyan approach as a model of American leadership. It isn't.
On Libya, America was not the leader but the led. For weeks, the administration was paralyzed by intense, unresolved internal divisions. Meanwhile, Gaddafi promised to "cleanse Libya house by house." France and Britain called for early action. The Arab League supported a military response. It was only last week -- after a White House meeting described as "extremely contentious" -- that the president finally settled on a course.
America did not orchestrate the international response. Instead, America was dragged toward responsibility by the clarity and persistence of Britain and France. Even then, it was only the prospect that Benghazi would become another Srebrenica that forced the administration's hand. Obama's response to the Libyan revolution fits the pattern of his foreign policy, established during the Green Revolution in Iran and the recent Egyptian uprising: The reaction hesitant, the process chaotic, the outcome late.
In response to an international crisis, every president faces the multilateral trade-off. Acting in concert with the Security Council and regional organizations brings a form of legitimacy that comes from consensus. It distributes global burdens more broadly.