Leave aside the wisdom of the particular course of action that Slaughter prescribes and concentrate on her last sentence. She evidently thinks that it’s time for Obama to do something about Libya, even if there’s still room for reasonable disagreement about what in particular he should do. In a situation like this, she suggests, American presidents don’t have the luxury of passivity.“The United States should immediately ask the Security Council to authorize a no-flight zone and make clear to Russia and China that if they block the resolution, the blood of the Libyan opposition will be on their hands. We should push them at least to abstain, and bring the issue to a vote as soon as possible. If we get a resolution, we should work with the Arab League to assemble an international coalition to impose the no-flight zone. If the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests. . . . It is time to act.”
You’d never get that impression listening to Obama. Thus far, he hasn’t just resisted acting unilaterally with respect to Libya in favor of acting in concert with the international community. He won’t even say forthrightly what he’d have the international community do, besides commencing an orgy of consultation. That won't do the Libyan insurgents much good, but from all appearances, Obama doesn’t think that leading the international community’s response to what’s happening in Libya is part of his job.
To his sternest critics, Obama’s passivity respecting Libya is just another symptom of his congenital indecisiveness, of a piece with his penchant for voting present in the Illinois legislature (see, e.g., Michael Barone here). In their view, that’s just more evidence that the president isn’t up to his job. Yet Obama wears his passivity as a badge of honor, as if it answers to an important principle. What could the operative principle be?
I haven’t heard Obama or anyone in his administration enunciate it. Maybe Matthew Yglesias has put his finger on it:
Let’s unpack this a little. Yglesias doesn’t deny that the Libyan people would be better off without Gaddafi and that something like a no-fly zone would lessen the chances of a moral atrocity within Libya. I’ll bet that he wouldn’t even deny that, from his own moral standpoint (and the standpoint of most Americans), intervention in behalf of the Libyan people is justified because the claims of the insurgents are just and Gaddafi never was a legitimate ruler in the first place.“[I]t seems to me that [if we take Slaughter’s advice] we’re headed down a slippery slope of unilateralism. The violence taking place in Libya today is no Rwandan genocide. Far from being a threat to global non-proliferation norms, the Libyan government brokered a deal with western leaders years ago to give them up precisely in order to enhance its standing as a legitimate government. So what is the actual standard being proposed here for when the American government should offer military assistance to rebel groups? Leaving aside the myriad practical questions about intervention in Libya and think about what is the rule being proposed for this rule-based order? To me, this sounds like a proposal whose medium-term consequences will be to return Africa to its unhappy Cold War situation where it becomes a venue for endless superpower proxy conflicts.”
Yglesias’s problem with intervention seems to follow from the recognition that a lot of nations (including permanent members of the UN Security Council) don’t judge things from our moral standpoint. Given the diversity of world opinion on such matters, he can’t think of an established principle of international law justifying our intervention in Libya that could command universal assent across the community of nations (or the Security Council). To intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state in the absence of such a principle, Yglesias concludes, is unjustifiable because it undermines international law and the “rule-based global order.” If we surrender to the urge to act on distinctively American or western values, other nations will exercise similar partiality toward their own worldview and you can forget having an international order that's rule-governed.
That’s a radical rejection of unilateralism because it pertains not only to our acts but to their justifications. It implies not only that we should refrain from acting without the consent of the international community, but that we should not act, or even urge others to act, in ways that answer to our own values insofar as they’re different from other people’s values. American exceptionalism or America's exceptional power (even when it makes us the only international player powerful enough to avert a humanitarian disaster) shouldn't come into it.
That doesn’t sound to me like a morally plausible view of how to conduct American foreign policy (and I may be doing Yglesias an injustice by attributing it to him). But it would explain a lot about Obama’s foreign policy if he subscribed to it or something like it.