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Libya a Key Test of Obama's Use of Military Power

President Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House to discuss the death of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Oct. 20, 2011.
President Obama walks to the Rose Garden of the White House to discuss the death of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Oct. 20, 2011.

In a speech on March 28, President Barack Obama said the United States had a responsibility to help protect civilians threatened by Moammar Gadhafi, and that American interests and values were at stake in Libya.

The military campaign that began last March with U.S. cruise missiles and French aircraft strikes soon became a NATO-directed operation, and a key test of his administration's determination to spread the burden of military action among key allies and partners.

From the start, Obama made clear U.S. ground troops would not be involved; he drew a distinction between situations where military force was required, such as Afghanistan, and those where U.S. interests were not directly challenged.

But the president said the U.S has an obligation to act against threats to "common humanity and common security." He said U.S. policy was based on key principles, including support for universal rights and governments responsive to the aspirations of their people.

"For the region, today's events prove once again that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to end," Obama said Thursday, recalling these principles in the White House Rose Garden. "Across the Arab world, citizens have stood up to claim their rights. Youth are delivering a powerful rebuke to dictatorship. And those leaders who try to deny their human dignity will not succeed."

Longtime Middle East expert Aaron David Miller has been an advisor to six U.S. secretaries of state and is now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

He says events in Libya vindicate the president's decision to make a "relatively low-cost American investment" that allowed Libyans to take the lead in ousting Gadhafi, but broader implications remain unclear.

"We cannot do in Syria what we have done in Libya [or in] other Arab states," he said. "The Saudis, the Jordanians [who] will ultimately will be faced also with demands for greater political reform, greater respect for human rights [and] transparency."

As for any Obama "doctrine" regarding use of military force, Miller says it will continue to be difficult to apply a single model to all countries in the Arab Spring.

Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations has a similar perspective that emphasizes the inherent geopolitical complexities such a decision entails.

"People will start debating whether or not we should be playing this role in getting rid of dictators, but they will soon find that any such policy is fraught with contradictions," he said. "The Saudis are dictators. Are we going to go in and help to overthrow them? Not a chance."

Exactly how much credit Americans will give Obama for current success of his Libya strategy remains to be seen. Miller says many Americans are focused on economic problems at home.

"There was a reckoning with Osama bin Laden," said Miller. "It did not marginally let alone significantly alter the relationship between the vast majority of people in this country who believe that the president's economic policies have failed."

But Miller says Republicans seeking to replace Obama in 2012 will have a hard time persuading voters that the president has been weak when it comes to foreign policy.

Gelb says the degree of domestic political impact for Obama will depend upon ongoing developments in Libya.

"We have to see next month and next year whether that country becomes a haven of opposition to western interests and ideals or whether it miraculous begins to edge toward democracy," he said.

In his remarks at the White House, Obama said the U.S. is under no illusions, saying Libya still faces a "long and winding road" to full democracy. But the U.S. and international community, he said, remain committed to the Libyan people.

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