President Obama gave a clearly articulated explanation/defense of his Libya policy tonight, and in the process might have articulated what will come to be known as the Obama Doctrine. Essentially, it comes down to this: we will intercede militarily wherever we have the capability to make a difference, a coalition of willing allies, and a pressing national security or humanitarian interest. We will not go it alone except when and if there is no other choice. It's quite a reversal from the Bush approach, a point he made clear:
"If we tried to overthrow Gaddafi by force, our coalition would splinter. We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground, or risk killing many civilians from the air. The dangers faced by our men and women in uniform would be far greater. So would the costs, and our share of the responsibility for what comes next.
"To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq's future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya."
He reiterated the basic points on a few different occasions. We do have strategic interests in the region, and a more specific interest in helping Egypt and Tunisia through these first fragile days of their new nations. Left unstated, but clear, was that we have an interest in supporting any group of people who might be able to force Gaddafi from office. He pointed out that it took us more than a year to build a coalition with the ability and willingness to intercede in Bosnia, but it took him 21 days on Libya. He used a lot of diplomatic muscle (and, no doubt, Hilllary Clinton's exceptional Rolodex) to pull this coalition together. He pointed out that he took action only after consultation with the Congressional leadership of both parties (and a unanimous Senate resolution supporting a no-fly zone).
Toward the end, he said, "But let us also remember that for generations, we have done the hard work of protecting our own people, as well as millions around the globe. We have done so because we know that our own future is safer and brighter if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity."
That's hard to argue with. I had my doubts about this effort from the start, and I still have some. But we seem to have done what he said we would do--kept costs relatively low (in treasure and in blood), handed off leadership to NATO, and shared the effort with our allies. Something else he didn't point out, but that I think is significant, is that when you build a coalition, not only do you share the costs and the burdens, but you also give your coalition partners a stake in the outcome and the continuing effort. It won't just be us trying to rebuild Libya, if that's the end game. This is, as noted above, a significant departure from the past--and one I heartily support.