Obama And Bush – Different Approach, Similar Outcome

After eight years of George W Bush, a majority of Americans wanted a president who didn’t shoot from the hip, and that is certainly what they have got in Barack Obama.

After eight years of George W Bush, a majority of Americans wanted a president who didn’t shoot from the hip, and that is certainly what they have got in Barack Obama.

When it came to taking action against Libya, the leader of the free world kept his pistol in its holster until the last possible minute.

We now learn that it was only last Tuesday night, at the end of an extremely tense meeting of his national security staff, that the president finally come down on the side of military intervention and decided to throw the crucial support of the United States behind UN resolution 1973, which passed just 48 hours later.

It was nearly a month since Libyans had taken to the streets, five days since President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had recognised the authority of the rebel council in Benghazi, and 15 days since David Cameron had told the House of Commons that he would seek a no-fly zone against Col Muammar Gaddafi’s air force.

Obama delivers a statement about Libya in the East Room of the White House

Until Wednesday night, when comments from Obama officials indicated a change of heart, the consensus in Washington was that military action against the Libyan leader was not on the cards.

The president himself had reminded the country it was already embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had said that American involvement in Libya would sully the organic nature of the Arab spring – seemingly forgetting that the American colonies’ 18th century revolt against the British would not have succeeded without the aid of the French.

A range of former senators, generals, senior officials and experts opposed a no-fly zone as a vague, open-ended and burdensome commitment. Members of Mr Obama’s Democratic Party balked at the dollar cost and political risk of another military adventure in a Muslim nation.

Within the administration, Robert Gates, the Defence Secretary, mocked “loose talk” about a no-fly zone, reminding the nation that it involved planes and bombs, not mere rhetoric. His views were supported by Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser, and others.

The top level aides in favour of action were Vice President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State. They had been reminded by Bill Clinton of his eternal regret at not saving hundreds of thousands of lives by intervening in Rwanda, and his failure at not policing Serb killers from the air earlier on in Bosnia.

It was that moral argument for liberal interventionism that seems to have proved decisive for the US president.

“Here is why this matters to us,” Mr Obama said. “Left unchecked, we have every reason to believe that Gaddafi would commit atrocities against his people. The United States of America will not stand idly by.”

The question is why he did not appreciate that danger until Col Gaddafi’s armoured columns and jets began picking off rebel-held towns?

The answer is that waiting, pondering, balancing the options – critics call it dithering – is Mr Obama’s signature style. Gut feelings on unforeseen events are not his strong point.

He offered only rhetorical support for Iranian street protestors in the summer of 2009. He chewed over the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan for more than three months, through countless top level Situation Room meetings and advisory reports. He waited until all of 270 Americans had been evacuated from Tripoli before uttering a critical word against Col Gaddafi.

Even when the commander-in-chief had committed his military to fresh combat, he was at pains to emphasise the limited nature of the planned action against the Libyan leader.

“We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal, specifically the protection of civilians in Libya,” he said. In the Commons, Mr Cameron was far more forceful, and his may be the plaudits to grab if the campaign goes well.

But there are plenty of problems with the allies’ strategy, if indeed it can be called a strategy at all. What happens if a US pilot is shot down over Libya and captured? If Col Gaddafi has not buckled 18 months from now, would there be no option but to send in Special Forces to aid the rebels, and who knows how many troops after that? In short, where does it end?

Whatever happens, the president will take shelter in the international dimension of the anti-Gaddafi campaign, and in the endorsement of the UN.

But at some point it will dawn on Americans that they are in a third war – and that is without bombing Iran’s nuclear installations becoming a pressing issue in the next couple of years. Or intervening in Yemen, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia should their governments overstep the mark.

It may then be of little comfort that their current president simply thought more carefully about risking American lives than the last.