Why the U.N. vote on Libya means almost as much for Obama as for Qaddafi

Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama.  Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness ...

Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama.  Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness of the actions it triggers will weigh heavily on how the American president is ultimately viewed.

Late Thursday the U.N. Security Council voted on how the world would ultimately view Barack Obama.  Yes, the vote came in the guise of a decision about whether or not to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. But every aspect of the decision from the process leading up to the vote to the eventual effectiveness of the actions it triggers will weigh heavily on how the American president is ultimately viewed.

This is not because Libya is such a vital issue.  It’s significant to be sure and certainly the plight of the rebels combating Muammar Qaddafi warranted strong action.  But the Libya vote may someday be seen as especially important to perceptions of Obama and his effectiveness as an international leader because it is so emblematic of how he would like to handle world affairs.  This was Obama the multilateralist, willing to trade fast, decisive action for the support and legitimacy of working within the U.N. system.  This was Obama the president of a nation fighting too many wars and with limited means seeking to let others lead, take risks and share in the burdens of keeping the world safe.  This was Obama, the un-Bush, out from under the complications of inherited wars that frankly have made him sometimes look like W 2.0, showing in effect, how he personally would like to handle the use of force going forward.

If the intervention is seen as timely, the rebels are effectively supported and Qaddafi’s gains of the past few days are reversed, it will be hailed as successfully demonstrating that there is an alternative to unilateralism and that there may be an alternative to America playing the role the Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass described as being that of “the reluctant sheriff.”  If it works, the fact that the U.S. and its allies managed to turn five likely “no” votes into abstentions thus clearing the way for action will be seen as masterful diplomacy and a feather in the cap of Hillary Clinton who faced down considerable head-winds not just overseas but within in the Administration to make it happen.  

However, if the action is seen as too little too late and Qaddafi is able to consolidate his victories and remain in power, then Obama strategy and tactics will certainly be questioned and characterized as too deferential, hesitant and a signal to brutal governments that getting tough on opponents pays off.  The American declinists will have a field day as will both international bad guys and Obama’s political opponents back home.  

In either case, with America and its president less inclined to act alone and ever seeking ways to shift the job of keeping the peace globally to others, this Libya case should be viewed both in terms of what it means to the situation on the ground in that warn torn country and as a possible test-case of a new approach to world affairs, one that Barack Obama would ultimately like to be able to take credit for leading.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

Bill Clinton and Joe Biden  at a meeting of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the NATO summit in Spain on July 7, 1998.

Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis

The greatest tragedy about Russia’s potential invasion is how easily it could have been avoided.

A report card is superimposed over U.S. President Joe Biden.

Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Grade A Material?

More than 30 experts grade the U.S. president’s first year of foreign policy.

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan gives a press briefing.

Defining the Biden Doctrine

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan sat down with FP to talk about Russia, China, relations with Europe, and year one of the Biden presidency.

Ukrainian servicemen taking part in the armed conflict with Russia-backed separatists in Donetsk region of the country attend the handover ceremony of military heavy weapons and equipment in Kiev on November 15, 2018.

The West’s Weapons Won’t Make Any Difference to Ukraine

U.S. military equipment wouldn’t realistically help Ukrainians—or intimidate Putin.