During the NATO intervention in Libya, to date perhaps the great success of Obama’s foreign policy, senior White House officials went so far as to suggest that the logic that led the president to intervene in order to protect the citizens of Benghazi from slaughter might be expanded into a broader principle: the Obama doctrine, they called it. The Obama doctrine had two basic components — imminence and collaboration. America ought to intervene militarily when it could prevent the imminent slaughter of civilians, the doctrine said, but it would not do so unless it could secure the collaboration of a significant coalition, the latter both as a safety valve against malfunctions in our moral radar and as protection against any perceptions that our aims might be imperial.
As doctrines go, this did not seem like a bad one. Its imminence clause clearly reflected the humanitarian interventionist conviction that the moral failure of the West in Rwanda should not be repeated; its collaboration clause the realpolitik conclusion that the U.S. must avoid a repeat of the Iraq disaster. And it implicitly provided an answer to the question — really raised only rhetorically by the left — that every liberal White House wrestles with: If we are universalists, and our country is under no threat of invasion, then why do we maintain such a singularly vast military, for which we spend more than all of the other nations on Earth combined? What is the point of all these bombs? The point of all the bombs, the Obama doctrine suggested, in at least some significant part, is to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Given the clarity of that doctrine, and given how recent and successful the Libya operation was, it has been striking — as the question of humanitarian intervention has come to focus on Syria — to see the president abandon his rhetoric and logic so completely. The details of the bombing plans that have been publicized — targeted raids lasting no more than three days, directed not at chemical weapons but at the military units that carried out the horrifying August 21 chemical attack — suggest that their aim is not protection but punishment. So does the intervention’s timing. The Assad government has been slaughtering its own civilians by the tens of thousands for two years. It has been several months since Defense secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that American intelligence believed the Syrian government had likely used sarin gas against its own citizens. As abhorrent and inhumane as this latest attack was, it is hard to see exactly how it altered the moral compulsion to act. Slaughter is slaughter; dead is dead.
But the tell is not just in the details, or the timing. In his interview on Wednesday with PBS’s NewsHour, Obama did not make a case that there was any looming humanitarian crisis, focusing instead on an argument for geopolitical stability. “We cannot see,” the president explained, “a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.” The president began by addressing the humanitarian case: “Although what’s happened there is tragic,” he said, “what I’ve also concluded is that direct military engagement, involvement in the civil war in Syria, will not help the situation on the ground.”
In contrast to the president’s own caution, David Cameron’s government was far more blunt — at least until Britain’s parliament rejected any military involvement in Syria. Cameron saw intervention as explicitly humanitarian. “The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime is a serious crime of international concern, as a breach of the customary international law prohibition on use of chemical weapons, and amounts to a war crime and a crime against humanity,” the Cameron government argued in its failed resolution. “However, the legal basis for military action would be humanitarian intervention; the aim is to relieve humanitarian suffering by deterring or disrupting the further use of chemical weapons.”
One way of viewing the difference between the American and British rhetoric over Syria would be to say that the Obama White House is heading toward this weird little war more cynically than the Cameron government was, more openly cognizant perhaps of the broad strategic game at work in the Middle East, with one side lining up behind Saudi Arabia and the other behind Iran. But it seems more likely that the difference is simpler. Obama’s devotion to the humanitarian interventionist position has never been as clear, as single-minded, as those of his most famous foreign-policy advisers, Samantha Power and Susan Rice. Obama is, in his usual way, more guarded than that, more complicated, a complex algorithm into which both idealist impulses and realist ones are input. And so this unusual military intervention — extremely limited and transparent and targeted, triggered by humanitarian concerns but not exactly humanitarian in its aims, couched in the language of universalism but supported only by a few allies, accompanied by public declarations that it was not expected to alter the trajectory of the larger conflict — feels in some ways more true to the president than that particular framing of the Obama doctrine ever did. This three-day exercise does seem, in some meaningful sense, Obama’s war.