The collapse of the Gaddafi regime firmly establishes the benefits of Obama's national security strategy over the failed war policies that preceded him -- and are still promoted by his critics.
There is mop-up fighting in the streets of Tripoli and much work needed to consolidate a new Libyan government. But the victory of this rebellion against one of the longest ruling dictators in the world marks a stunning success for President Barack Obama's global strategy. It is the third win in the Arab world in 2011, as my colleague Joel Rubin points out:
First, longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was deposed after Obama refused to support him against the Egyptian people at the moment of truth. Second, Osama bin Laden, America's archenemy #1, was killed by Navy SEALS on direct orders from Obama in a risky cross-border raid into Pakistan. And now, Muammar Gaddafi... is about to be knocked out of power by an international coalition in which Obama ensured that the U.S. played a leading team role.
A growing number of experts praise the six-month campaign as a turning point in U.S. national security policy. Fareed Zakaria calls it "a new era in U.S. foreign policy." He rebuts Obama's neoconservative critics, arguing that the victory proves that "the old model of American leadership -- where we took all the decision, bore all the burdens, paid all the costs and took all the glory -- has to change."
The Council on Foreign Relation's James Lindsay details other critiques:
Steve Clemons argues that "Barack Obama's gamble in providing limited support for a conflict, in which other countries played lead roles, now seems like a winning move." David Rothkopf believes Libya marks "a pivot point in U.S. foreign policy." Blake Hounshell writes that Obama's "strategy now seems utterly vindicated."
Obama's political opponents are left sputtering. Some say he never should have committed U.S. military forces in the first place, others that he should have gone in faster and harder. But it is very difficult to argue with success. Complaints -- like those from Jamie Fly, the director of the renamed Project for a New American Century that pushed the disastrous war with Iraq -- seem naïve. "The administration deserves some credit," he says, "but this could have been done much quicker and much easier if the administration had led from the beginning."
The dominant media narrative, however, seems to neither praise nor criticize Obama's role, but ignore it. As Canadian Kelly McParland lampoons, "Libya falls. Ho-hum, another success for Obama." Libya is neither insignificant nor accidental. Its success flows from a carefully constructed doctrine that seems poised to deliver more significant successes -- perhaps including Syria -- in the coming months.
Grounded in Core Principles
The Libyan policy was based on a strategy the Obama developed early in his presidency. As I have written on this site earlier, the Obama Doctrine is one guided by universal compliance with democratic norms and the rule of law; policies driven by the convergence of shared interests and responsibilities; and a statecraft that does not shirk from the application of military force when necessary but promotes America's interests, with respect for other nations and the strength of joint enterprise.
In his trip to Moscow in July 2009, Obama deftly buried the deeply flawed strategic doctrine that launched an unnecessary war with Iraq and posited military force as the chief tool of U.S. statecraft. In his speech at the New Economic School he said:
There is sometimes a sense that old ways of thinking must prevail; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future... In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries... As I said in Cairo, given our interdependence, any world order that tries to elevate one nation or one group of people over another will inevitably fail. The pursuit of power is no longer a zero-sum game -- progress must be shared.
In that speech, Obama eulogized and then put to rest the Bush Doctrine:
Now let me be clear: America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country. And we haven't always done what we should have on that front.
Unity Leads to Victory
This is not naïve liberal internationalism. On the contrary, as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice explained in August 2009, respect for multilateral institutions strengthens America's ability to protect and pursue its own interests:
When the United States joins others to confront these challenges, it's not charity. It's not even barter. In today's world, more than ever, America's interests and our values converge. What is good for others is often good for us. When we manifest our commitment to tackling the threats that menace so many other nations; when we invest in protecting the lives of others; and when we recognize that national security is no longer a zero-sum game, then we increase other countries' will to cooperate on the issues most vital to us.
Rice underscored the break with the failed unilateralism of the past, when she said:
If ever there were a time for effective multilateral cooperation in pursuit of U.S. interests and a shared future of greater peace and prosperity, it is now. We stand at a true crossroads. We must move urgently to reinvigorate the basis for common action. The bedrock of that cooperation must be a community of states committed to solving collective problems and capable of meeting the responsibilities of effective sovereignty.
The administration has put these policies into practice over the past two years. Not always smoothly, not always consistently. And their implementation has been hindered by the "team of rivals" approach that Obama took to constructing his administration, bringing in national security advisors that do not necessarily share his views. But the overall results have been impressive. He has steadily pulled U.S. national security policy out of the ditch in which he found it.
This week, in Libya, thousands of people celebrated carrying posters of "The Fantastic Four": Obama, Rice, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. All four played a leading role in supporting the people of Libya in their overthrow of a tyrant. But it was America that played the crucial role. It was America that decided at a key moment to "invest in protecting the lives of others" and to join with NATO not to overthrow a regime, but to help the people of Libya make the regime change that only they could effect.
That is leadership. That is smart. And this is what victory feels like.