You have to hand it to Obama, then, for securing a substantial return—getting rid of a still-troublesome state sponsor of international terror—on a relatively meager monetary and reputational investment that included not a drop of American blood. It’s no criticism to say that the Libyan model of regime change has a severely limited application. It pretty clearly doesn’t apply, for instance, to more formidable and strategically significant state sponsors of terror like Syria and Iran. Obama never claimed it did.
Yet partisans within and without the administration are trying to get a lot more rhetorical mileage out of the American-assisted fall of Gaddafi than that. They’re doing their level best to portray it as a vindication of Obama’s “smart diplomacy” and as a stinging rebuke of the neo-conservative unilateralism that propelled us into the Iraq war. Here, for example, is White House Press-Secretary Jay Carney:
"‘Well, I think I've made clear that we believe that the President made the right decisions to work with our allies, to work with NATO, to work with the United Nations, not to do something on the cheap but because it was the right policy answer to the situation that presented itself, taking a long-term view about what outcome do you want in Libya,’ Carney said.”You’d have to be awfully tone-deaf to miss the implied comparison between Obama and the cowboy who preceded him in the White House. The verb-phrase “to work with” is doing a lot of rhetorical work in Carney’s formulation. How much weight can it really bear?
When “working with” is conjoined merely with “our allies” it just means something like “securing their cooperation in achieving shared objectives.” In the case at hand, the only allies that pulled any substantial military weight, France and Great Britain, were eager to enlist our military and financial might in their war for Libyan oil. That we succeeded in deposing Gaddafi in concert with them, however, doesn’t sustain any serious criticism of Bush’s unilateralism. His administration, after all, secured the active assistance of at least as many allies in getting rid of Saddam as Obama secured in getting rid of Gaddafi.
“[W]orking with” only does the rhetorical work Carney's plainly trying to make it do when it’s conjoined with “NATO” and the “United Nations.” In that combination, it implies that securing authorizing resolutions from those organizations gave the Libyan operation a measure of international legitimacy that the Bush administration’s exertions in Iraq never had because Obama acted under the color of international law. But does even Carney really believe that? Does he really think that NATO, much less the UN Security Council, really authorized Libyan regime change?
Yes, the Obama administration secured resolutions from NATO and the UN Security Council authorizing a joint undertaking, but an undertaking to protect civilians. The idea that the language of those resolutions gave us, the French and the British license to intervene in a Libyan civil war enough to make sure that Gaddafi’s side lost and Gaddafi himself was killed, is an improbable diplomatic fiction, and not a very polite one if you ask the losers of the Libyan civil war. If you’re willing to take that fiction as fact you probably think that launching enough missiles and financing enough French and British bombing raids to change the Gaddafi regime, and leave him and his followers to the tender mercies of the Libyan rebels, wasn’t a matter of engaging in “hostilities” within the meaning of the statute that requires a president to secure congressional authorization for the application of his war powers.
So, by all means, give Obama kudos for showing his chops as a practitioner of realpolitik. It’s important not only for us, but for the rest of the world, to know that he has them. But spare me the sanctimony about Obama’s devotion to international law and the rule-governed world order. If he was really the prisoner of talk like that he wouldn’t have a foreign policy achievement to celebrate.