By Sam Youngman - 03/19/11 10:00 AM EDT
President Obama, who won the White House by capturing the anti-war vote, struck an aggressive military posture Friday in dealing with Libya.
But both the president's words and orders reflect the lessons he learned as he stood in opposition to President George W. Bush's run-up to the war in Iraq.
Obama said Friday the U.N. resolution authorizing air strikes against Libya was not an outcome the U.S. had asked for, but one only Libyan Col. Moammar Gadhafi could avoid.
Obama flatly declared that U.S. ground troops will not be used in Libya. He emphasized that the U.S. will participate, but not lead the international effort. And he said the mission would have a clear goal.
“In this effort, the United States is prepared to act as part of an international coalition,” Obama said. “American leadership is essential, but that does not mean acting alone — it means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together.”
Obama also said he wanted “to be clear about what we will not be doing."
“The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya,” Obama said. “And we are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya.”
One senior administration official said Obama's approach to situations like the one in Libya are "of course, informed" by Bush's march to war in Iraq.
But the official scoffed at the idea that Obama had been too slow in his approach to Libya, dismissing critics while noting there were still Americans on the ground in Libya three weeks ago.
The approach that the U.S. is taking now, the official said, ensures that the U.S. and the international community will make conditions in Libya more favorable for the rebels.
The rebels will be the ones who oust Gadhafi from power, not the U.S., the official said.
Obama's move comes with political risk for a president who has already upset his base by continuing military action in Afghanistan and failing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba.
Obama did receive immediate support for his decision on Libya from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who earlier this week called for U.S. troops in Afghanistan to return "expeditiously."
Obama was the darling of the anti-war left during the 2008 campaign, bursting onto the national stage with his opposition to the Iraq war and siphoning off Democratic support from opponent Hillary Clinton, who had voted for the use of force in Iraq. In 2008, MoveOn.org endorsed Obama, providing a major boost to his bid to win the Democratic nomination over Clinton.
Now, Clinton has emerged as the most forceful advocate within Obama's administration for strong action against Gadhafi.
While the administration has indicated troops could be in Afghanistan through 2014, Obama has touted the drawdown of military forces in Iraq. Obama says he has kept his campaign promises on withdrawing from Iraq.
In a 2002 speech, Obama explained that he was not against all wars.
At the time, he blasted Bush administration officials for trying to “shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
“That’s what I’m opposed to,” Obama said. “A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle, but on politics.”
On Friday, Obama described Gadhafi in similar ways that Bush talked about Saddam Hussein.
“Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gadhafi would commit atrocities against his people,” Obama said. “Many thousands could die. A humanitarian crisis would ensue. The entire region could be destabilized, endangering many of our allies and partners.”
The U.S. had given different signals about setting up a no-fly zone for weeks before showing muscular support Thursday at the U.N. One difference was the sense that if Gadhafi succeeded in quashing the rebellion against him, it would send a negative signal to the rest of the Middle East.
Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University, said Obama's posture Friday was the result of his evolution from Democratic candidate to president.
Baker said Obama the candidate was influenced both by his opposition to the Iraq war and the necessity of appealing to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Obama the president, Baker said, is “assuming the mantle of commander-in-chief,” and showing that “he can be muscular on foreign policy.”
In recent weeks, Obama has been accused of being too cautious on Libya. He has attracted criticism from Republicans, including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), for not intervening sooner.
The White House has adamantly defended the president’s response, noting the rapidity with which the U.S., along with the U.N. and NATO, moved to put in place an arms embargo and other sanctions against Gadhafi.
Obama on Friday said at a time of tremendous global and domestic challenges, he would rather the United States not have to intervene in the Middle East.
“The United States did not seek this outcome,” Obama said. “Our decisions have been driven by Gadhafi’s refusal to respect the rights of his people and the potential for mass murder of innocent civilians.”