US President Barack Obama, explaining his Libya policy last week, resisted the temptation to define a fatuous “doctrine” for international intervention. Instead Obama laid out a set of coherent criteria to justify military action. By avoiding any “Obama doctrine” he also emphasized the flexibility required for deploying what is still unique, but decreasing, American power in a world in dramatic flux.
Obama began by asserting that the president will act without hesitation when the security of the United States is directly threatened, an uncontested axiom of American policy. Obama’s gloss on the deployment of American military power internationally was his focus on the convergence of values and interests. The operative sentence of his speech was: “There will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and our values are.” And, he added, “In such cases, we should not be afraid to act.”
Obama’s criteria for considering military action when the security of the United States is not directly threatened involve a fairly subtle interplay between what he presented as “values” and what are agreed to be “interests.” Because he was trying to justify a risky and expensive military operation to an American public generally opposed to intervention in Libya, Obama wisely emphasized the “values” element of the equation. He suggested that as Libyan forces advanced toward the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, he “refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
The White House reportedly anticipated “another Srebrenica,” recalling the massacre in 1995 of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in eastern Bosnia – as United Nations forces stood by powerlessly. No one could have seriously dismissed that prospect given Moammar al-Qaddafi’s own words and deeds as his forces threatened to recapture Benghazi.
However, the “interests” argument was there too, although downplayed. What Obama was trying to communicate was that for the United States, its Arab allies and the international community, the prospect of Benghazi falling and Qaddafi’s reemergence as a vengeful, bloodied, oil-rich and re-empowered menace stalking the region and the globe was simply an unacceptable outcome. The West and the Arabs might be able to live with a prolonged civil war in Libya, and maybe even a stalemate, but not a decisive Qaddafi victory and its consequences, especially given the Libyan leader’s track record.
So, Obama’s speech didn’t simply answer the question: “Why Libya?” It also answered the equally pointed “Why not Ivory Coast or Congo; why not Bahrain, Yemen or Syria?” Why act here, and not elsewhere?
This notion of the confluence of values and interests explains exactly why. American, and indeed universal, values may be affronted in the Ivory Coast and Congo, but fundamental Americans interests are not at stake. American interests in Bahrain – such as its hosting of the Fifth Fleet and apparent Iranian designs on the island kingdom – won’t allow for the overthrow of the royal family, although transition to a constitutional monarchy is undoubtedly desirable.
The situation in Yemen is so volatile and complex it’s almost impossible to imagine how military intervention would advance American interests there. And as for Syria, although regime change might be welcomed in Washington and many other capitals, highly influential Israeli and Saudi voices have warned strongly against the likely alternatives. There are many other examples in which American interests and values simply aren’t converging as in the Libyan case.
In Libya Obama identified this convergence and decided to act. I’ve argued that the hesitation in what was an inevitable intervention has been politically and strategically costly, but Obama powerfully argued that the United States had to act in concert with other states and with international legitimacy. What I still see as hesitation, he suggested was in fact the development of a broad coalition including NATO and Arab forces, and the passage of UN Security Council and Arab League resolutions authorizing the no-fly zone.
Obama’s conditions suggest that under his leadership the United States is not looking for opportunities to act but will be attuned to situations in which action is unavoidable, and inaction more costly or simply unacceptable. He explained these conditions masterfully and persuasively, but explicitly avoided any kind of formulaic “doctrine” that locks the United States into any future interventions.
Most importantly, Obama explicitly recognized that the Libyan action decisively shows the United States standing with Arabs seeking freedom from dictatorship. After all, if it really were about stability and oil, the most logical thing would’ve been to intervene on the side of Qaddafi, who has imposed ruthless stability and provided cheap petroleum. However, this robust intervention in one corner of the developing “Arab Spring” shows Washington clearly making a choice on behalf of dramatic and revolutionary change.