What factors are influencing the Obama administration as it weighs an intervention in Syria?
For perspective, look at last year’s decision by President Barack Obama to deploy U.S. airpower over Libya, which encapsulates some of the defining aspects of Obama’s foreign policy. It helps explain not only why the administration has been so reluctant to act in Syria, but also why -- regardless of what happens in Syria -- Republicans will find it hard to develop a single, consistent attack on Obama’s foreign policy in this year’s election.
Late in the afternoon of March 15, 2011, Obama gathered with members of his National Security Council in the White House Situation Room. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was on the verge of slaughtering the civilians and ragtag opposition forces that had risen up against him. The Obama administration was confronting an urgent decision: whether to send U.S. warplanes over Libya in an effort to stop him.
Over the previous two weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron had been imploring Obama to do just that. Obama’s Cabinet was divided: Defense Secretary Robert Gates had been opposed to military action, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been in favor.
Obama took the deliberations in a new direction. Why, asked the president, are we focusing on a no-fly zone? “This notion that we’re going to put some planes in the air to fly over a massacre just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “We could feel really good about ourselves, on the right side of history, and the people would still get killed.”
“I want more options,” Obama concluded, announcing that he wanted to reconvene the National Security Council later that night to hear what else he might do besides an ineffective no- fly zone.
That night, he was presented with a range of military options. One was to use no U.S. force at all, and simply to provide intelligence and other support for French and British forces. Another was the no-fly zone. The third was to go beyond the no-fly zone by sending out planes to strike at Libyan military targets on the ground in a way that would stop their advance toward Benghazi.
The president ultimately chose the third military option, ordering Susan Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, to seek Security Council approval for a resolution authorizing “all necessary measures” -- a euphemism for military force -- to protect civilians.
What Obama did two days later was even more striking. After the Security Council approved the U.S. proposal, he called Cameron and Sarkozy and worked out what his aides called a deal: The U.S. would use its unique military capabilities to demolish not only Libya’s air defenses, but other military targets on the ground. Then, after a few days, the U.S. would step back and leave it to the British, French and other allies to continue the military campaign. The U.S. would provide what the military calls ISR -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The rest would be up to others.
Less than 48 hours later, more than 100 Tomahawk cruise missiles rained down on targets along the Libyan coastline, hitting anything that might be used against allied warplanes over Libya. Immediately afterward, U.S. planes struck at tanks, armored vehicles, heavy artillery, and other armor and weaponry. Qaddafi’s forces were suddenly stripped of their principal advantage over the opposition.
There was no massacre in Benghazi. The rebel forces held the city. But the civil war was just starting. After the first few days, Obama kept U.S. forces out of combat, despite occasional British and French appeals for the U.S. to rejoin the air campaign.
Obama’s decisions on Libya showcase two of the most distinctive aspects of his foreign policy. First, Obama was not squeamish about employing U.S. military power. His actions in the White House belied the stereotypes of weakness that Republicans have tried to pin on Democratic presidents and presidential candidates for four decades: that they are averse to the use of force. In Libya, in fact, Obama decided to take stronger military action than U.S. allies had proposed. In Afghanistan, he greatly increased the U.S. military presence, sending more than 50,000 additional troops in his first year in office. In the war against al-Qaeda, he vastly stepped up the use of drones and special operations, such as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
All of this was surprising to many Democrats who had chosen Obama for the Democratic nomination because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. For them, Obama turned out to be the peace candidate who wasn’t.
But Obama’s actions were also disconcerting to Republicans, who had trouble figuring out a consistent line of attack against the president. During Obama’s first year, former Vice President Dick Cheney portrayed him as weak. In Obama’s second year, Cheney began arguing that the Democratic president represented in many ways a continuation of George W. Bush’s administration. In the third year, after the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, Cheney praised the operation, but called upon Obama to apologize for having supposedly accused the Bush team of overreacting to the Sept. 11 attacks. Similarly, while running for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich at first upbraided Obama for failing to establish a no-fly zone in Libya; then, after Obama did so and went even further, Gingrich said he would not have intervened at all.
Second, Libya also illustrated the other salient feature of Obama’s foreign policy: his continuing effort to recast the U.S. role in the world in a way that fit the country’s more limited resources. No other president since World War II had entered into a military campaign quite like the one in Libya, in which Obama helped start the operation and then willingly, indeed insistently, handed off the next six months of work to its allies. For years, U.S. politicians had been talking about the importance of “burden sharing” with its allies. This usually meant asking other countries to help pay for U.S.-dominated operations. Obama went well beyond that.
Over the past few months, in considering whether to intervene in Syria, the administration has decided that the differences from Libya have outweighed the similarities.
Above all, the military options in Syria seemed much less viable than the ones available on Libya. Significant parts of Libyan territory were outside of government control. Qaddafi’s army was physically separated from the rebel forces in such a way that a military operation could protect opposition forces from the air and could stop the advance of the Libyan army on Benghazi. Syria has no such neat territorial divisions between the security forces and the opposition.
When it came to Libya, the UN Security Council, prodded by France and Britain, was moving toward some sort of action against Qaddafi even before Obama decided to intervene. In the case of Syria, the Russians and Chinese have blocked any such authorization from the Security Council.
The Obama administration is employing some of the same political and diplomatic approaches in Syria as it did in Libya, and working with many of the same partners to coordinate economic sanctions against the regime and support for the opposition. The administration is repeatedly urging the Syrian opposition to unite, much as it did with the Libyan opposition.
But on Syria, the administration has decided (at least so far) that military intervention is not in the cards. It wants no part of what could become a messy, bloody civil war -- particularly not in an election year. The Republicans are again left trying to decide from which direction to criticize Obama -- for mounting a military operation on largely humanitarian grounds, as he did in Libya, or for failing to do so, as he has in Syria.
(James Mann is author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This essay was adapted from his new book, “The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine U.S. Power,” which is being published this week by Viking. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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