The president's policy on Libya suggests a U.S. that is retreating from the world.

Despite his penchant for soaring rhetoric, President Barack Obama’s address on the Libyan intervention was a far cry from John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration speech, where he proclaimed: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

After the staggering costs of the Iraq war, Americans were likely relieved to hear Obama say, “America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action.” Obama’s pragmatic realism – his idea that the United States should only intervene to prevent massacres when that intervention comes at an acceptable cost – is for many a welcome departure from his predecessor’s more idealistic conception of the U.S.’s role in international affairs. The president made it very clear that, in the case of Libya, U.S. values and interests were at stake.

Obama has insisted that his Libya policy is not to be considered an “Obama Doctrine,” but the speech nevertheless reflects his current thinking. It also represents a departure from his earlier stance on armed intervention. As he wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, “The United States still lacks a coherent national security policy ... Instead of guiding principles, we have what appears to be a series of ad hoc decisions, with dubious results. Why invade Iraq and not North Korea or Burma? Why intervene in Bosnia and not Darfur?”

To this we can now add the following question: Why did the international community immediately intervene in Libya when Gadhafi threatened a massacre in Benghazi, but wait until the outcome of the war in Cote d’Ivoire was already assured – despite the fact that nearly one million were displaced and there had been warnings of a potential bloodbath in Abidjan – before intervening and capturing Laurent Gbagbo?

As Obama said, conditions in Libya are unique. Moammar Gadhafi’s villainy was critical in securing support both domestically and internationally at the UN Security Council. At the same time, the impending humanitarian crisis galvanized broad support from European, and even Arab, allies. Libya’s geography also played a role: The country’s location provided easy access from the Mediterranean, and its flat terrain denied the regime cover for its tanks. By contrast, in Cote d’Ivoire, France and the United Nations seemed willing to forgo armed intervention until Gbagbo began shelling civilian and UN targets in Abidjan.

Both cases suggest that international decision-making on armed intervention is based less on consistent norms and values than on vague “tipping points” where atrocities become intolerable, conditions become more favourable, or an international consensus can be reached. But how rarely are these conditions met, and what does that suggest about the prospect of future, armed humanitarian interventions?

I tested four contemporary humanitarian crises against the standards suggested by Libya and Cote d’Ivoire: the Kurdish genocide in Iraq in 1987; Bosnia from 1992-1995; Rwanda in 1994; and Darfur in 2003. All of these cases lacked at least one of the following: an international consensus, a geopolitical significance, or a favourable strategic environment.

Without guiding principles on when to intervene, will strategic backwaters consistently be overlooked? Are we doomed to repeat non-interventions? Have we signalled to dictators that as long as they avoid a few cardinal sins – deploying heavy weaponry against citizens, attacking internationals, threatening massacres, and, above all else, losing their grip on power – they stand a fair chance of remaining in office?

Revolutionaries across the Middle East should take Obama’s pronouncement that “wherever people long to be free, they will find a friend in the United States” with a grain of salt. By failing to lay out exactly what the “Obama Doctrine” is, the president has shied away from Kennedy’s powerful message in favour of a more tepid response: “We will support you in some cases, when it is in our own interests, and if the cost is low.”

The gap between Obama’s idealism in The Audacity of Hope and the pragmatism he has displayed as president probably signals his growing appreciation of the complexity of international politics, rather than a genuine change of heart. I suspect that his inner realist tells him that the search for an international consensus on armed intervention is quixotic: The ideology is contentious, states’ interests conflict and change, and some countries will always “matter” more than others.


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