President Obama may be under attack from all quarters over Libya, but he knows what he’s doing, says Alex Spillius.
During their long and prickly battle for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton taunted Barack Obama with a television advertisement in which a telephone ringing at 3am in the White House went unanswered. The question was: who did Americans want to pick up the phone? “Someone tested and ready to lead in a dangerous world?” as the doom-laden voiceover suggested – in other words someone such as the supposedly battle-ready Mrs Clinton? Or someone such as Barack Obama, who at that stage had been in the United States Senate for a mere three years?
When it came to the Libyan crisis, Mr Obama left the figurative phone ringing for a fortnight, and as the British and French clamoured for a muscular response, did not speak to David Cameron for a week. Only when Col Muammar Gaddafi’s armoured divisions began picking off opposition-held towns, and when the Arab League supported a no-fly zone, did he change his mind, and only then after Hillary Clinton – now, of course, overseeing the answering of the phones at the State Department – and Susan Rice, his ambassador to the United Nations, persuaded him that it would not be in his interests to have another Srebrenica on his hands.
Critics called this dithering, and it was. The bulk of Obama’s working life was spent teaching law at the University of Chicago – he rarely mentions this because it is politically unsexy. But when faced with a crisis he still reacts like a college professor, gathering as much data and listening to as many different viewpoints as possible before processing all that information through his high quality brain. Gut feelings are not a strong point, but that does not mean that on Libya he does not know what he is doing.
While European interventionists may be frustrated chiefly with his late arrival to the cause, criticism at home has come from every angle. Senators from both Left and Right wondered why Congress was not consulted and demanded a joint session where the president would explain the goals of the mission. Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination next year, called Obama a “spectator in chief instead of commander in chief”, who lacked the ability to lead the world. Mitt Romney, another potential rival, said Mr Obama lacked a foreign policy.
Some asked what the president was doing jetting off to Latin America for five days when the country was effectively going to war. As French, British and US jets (a running order the White House insisted on) prepared to attack the southern Mediterranean coast, Mr Obama and his family arrived in Brazil, with Michelle and the two girls clad in closely coordinated carnival-yellow outfits.
With Washington’s politicos and press corps demanding an explanation, he made only a short statement on Friday before leaving Washington – and before it dawned on the Beltway crowd that bombs were going to rain on Libya – and then took only one question on the military operation at a Monday press conference in Chile.
In many ways, his critics have missed the point. With the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan still active, the last impression this US president wants to give Americans is that they are at war on another front. That is why he avoided a sombre Oval Office address to the nation as the first missiles were launched into a dark far-away sky on the very day that Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced eight years ago. That is why he kept the press at arm’s length and made sure his family visited a Rio slum and the mountain-top statue of Christ the Redeemer.
“Obama is pursuing a subtle strategy that, contrary to the criticism, has been carefully thought out,” says Stefan Halper, a former senior official in four Republican administrations. “It will enable the Europeans to do what they want to do with American help, preserve our credibility and ensure we pull away from the cutting edge of this process.”
There are numerous causes for Washington’s reticence. The Pentagon is worried about cost and overstretch. The president is concerned about not wrecking what he sees as progress in repairing the Arab world’s trust in Washington. A humanitarian crisis in Libya is, moreover, much further from the US than from Europe.
There is also a keen awareness in the Obama administration, Mr Halper says, that the real worries in the Middle East are the kingdoms of Bahrain, where the US Fifth Fleet resides, and Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest supplier of oil.
“It is very present in people’s minds and there is a sense of keeping your powder dry. If we have to have a holding operation in Libya that prevents a slaughter and takes a long time for a rag-tag opposition to move Gaddafi out of office, then so be it.”
Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says: “We are already at war in two Muslim nations and a third could not be contemplated. The delays from the White House may have come at a cost on the ground as Gaddafi made some gains, but would quick unilateral action have defeated him for sure?
“This was better than blundering into a conflict looking like a cowboy who only goes after Muslims. We will play a significant role in this but not one which allows al-Jazeera to show people burning US flags.”
And so we have had the extraordinary spectacle of the French and the Arab League being more hawkish than the world’s sole superpower. Within a few days the Americans are determined to hand over command of the operation to Nato or another country. That, of course, brings its own problems, as the bickering between Nato partners over the precise aim of the mission has shown. But what should not be missed here is that far from lacking a foreign policy for the US, Obama is changing it.
The multilateralism he seeks against Libya is not the fig-leafed coalition of the willing that went to war in Iraq, where, as Mr Ornstein puts it, “every other country apart from a few sent three or four soldiers”. Obama foresees an operation against Libya with an American logistical spine and a British or French, or even Arab face. He is happy to pick up the tab, but does not want to stay for dinner.
His plan is consistent with his approach to date of restoring US standing after the Bush era, promoting US economic interests given the nation’s shrinking share of the global pie, and avoiding conflict without looking weak – hence his decision to redouble efforts in Afghanistan. This may be too nuanced, or too vague, to be called an Obama doctrine. But as long as he sits in the White House, US allies will have to get used to the fact that while they can turn to America in a crisis, they may not receive the response they expect, especially when they themselves are in hawkish mood on any given issue.
“Obama is intuitively a multilateralist and he doesn’t seem to believe that the US has any innate cultural superiority over other countries,” says David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The problem is he is also very pragmatic, politically self-interested, and as narcissistic as any political leader, which means he wants all events to redound to his benefit personally.”
If Obama is not free of excessive personal regard, neither is he shy of using America’s clout when it suits him. He delivered a slap on the wrist to Brazil for irritating him over Iran by refusing to support its bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. He hesitated little about using the US veto in the same forum against a resolution condemning Israeli settlements.
“The president knows how powerful the US is,” Mr Rothkopf says. “He is just fairly uncomfortable about using US military power.”
That, for all of us, may take some getting used to. Europeans wanted an anti-Bush figure. This is what they have got.