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.
But the risk of every multilateral effort is that action becomes diluted and delayed by the most reluctant member of the coalition. In the recent past, that was often France. On Libya, that role was played -- amazingly -- by the United States. This eventually changed, for which the president deserves support. But it can hardly be described as a model of global leadership.
It is not easy to respond to momentous events when you have limited time and information. The deeper problem is that the administration's reaction to events in Iran, Egypt and Libya does not seem to originate in any coherent view of the world. This is not tactics on the fly, but strategy on the fly. The administration sympathizes with the protesters, but finds timely action too risky. Instead of recognizing a historic opportunity to help bring reform to the broader Middle East, it views each development as a threat to be managed. On one day, it seems to embrace a coldblooded realism, preferring stability to freedom. On the next, it employs the rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson. In the process, it walks the fine line between flexibility and confusion.
The essence of the Obama foreign policy is its lack of essence; its doctrine, the absence of doctrine. To allies, it seems unpredictable. To reformers, unreliable.
Contrast this to Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., speaking recently at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. While recognizing the risks of rapid change, Kerry asserted: "Just as the Berlin Wall could not be rebuilt, so we know that the old order in the Middle East cannot be restored." He is proposing, along with Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a package of proposals to reinforce political and economic reform in the Middle East, similar to American efforts in Eastern Europe two decades ago. According to Kerry, Americans believe "that democracy enables the fullest expression of the human spirit and that economic freedom is the engine of human innovation. We believe that when people can trust their government and rely on its justice, the society that flourishes is a stable one. And we believe that stability and prosperity are powerful antidotes to the violent urges of nihilism and extremism."
At this moment, we hope for the success of allied arms, the protection of Libyan civilians and the fall of a dictator. But it is Kerry's vision that should guide the president forward.