Obama at the U.N.: Re-Relearning the Lessons of Libya

For the third year in a row, President Obama used his address to the United Nations to sing the praises of limited military action that humbles rogue states. For the first year, he was speaking with some humility himself. Here here is in 2011:

Day after day, in the face of bullets and bombs, the Libyan people refused to give back that freedom. And when they were threatened by the kind of mass atrocity that often went unchallenged in the last century, the United Nations lived up to its charter. The Security Council authorized all necessary measures to prevent a massacre. The Arab League called for this effort; Arab nations joined a NATO-led coalition that halted Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks. In the months that followed, the will of the coalition proved unbreakable, and the will of the Libyan people could not be denied.

Here, in 2012:

We intervened in Libya alongside a broad coalition, and with the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, because we had the ability to stop the slaughter of innocents, and because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant. And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin.

But the intervention against Assad never happened. Obama spoke with apparent bitterness about how the aftermath of Libya might have increased cynicism about air power zooming in to settle a conflict within a state. “I know that some now criticize the action in Libya as an object lesson, that point to the problem that the country now confronts, a democratically elected government struggling to provide security, armed groups in some places, extremists ruling parts of the fractured land,” he said. “And so these critics argue that any intervention to protect civilians is doomed to fail. Look at Libya.”

He didn’t really get to prove the critics wrong. On Syria:

When I stated my willingness to order a limited strike against the Assad regime in response to the brazen use of chemical weapons, I did not do so lightly. I did so because I believe it is in the national security interests of the United States and in the interest of the world to meaningfully enforce a prohibition whose origins are older than the United Nations itself… I know that in the immediate aftermath of the attack there were those who questioned the legitimacy of even a limited strike in the absence of a clear mandate from the Security Council. But without a credible military threat, the Security Council had demonstrated no inclination to act at all.

We can assume Obama’s audience is too sophisticated to change its mind about “small” interventions because he used certain words in a speech. We can also read a tone of surprise, here, because as much as the president claims that he always preferred a diplomatic solution, there’s frustration that the Libya/Kosovo light-touch model didn’t work again.