Before Libya, Obama’s primary foreign policy decisions had centered on fixing the misadventures and mistakes of the Bush era: how to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, how to resolve the deepening disaster in Afghanistan, how to deal with Pakistan, how to get Osama bin Laden.
Going forward, he wrote, the U.S. would “avoid acting alone” and “reject the notion that lasting security and prosperity can be found by turning away from universal rights.” Democracy, he insisted, “does not merely represent our better angels, it stands in opposition to aggression and injustice, and our support for human rights is both fundamental to American leadership and a source of our strength in the world.”
It was a resounding rejection of the cowboy unilateralism and human-rights-be-damned ethos of the Bush era. “The burdens of a young century,” Obama insisted, “cannot fall on American shoulders alone.”
In recent weeks, the national narrative about Obama has begun to settle into a form of accepted wisdom. The president, it is said, has repeatedly failed to provide the kind of tough, uncompromising leadership needed to move the country forward on almost every front: jobs, health care, financial reform, the debt ceiling, Afghanistan.
"What the American people had started to question," one Democratic strategist explained to NPR, "is whether Barack Obama had the strong leadership and the courage of conviction to lay out a course and stick with it." But the untold story of how Obama decided to intervene in Libya – followed six weeks later by the successful assault he ordered on Osama bin Laden – reveals a commander in chief who has significantly departed from the agonized deliberations he engaged in just two years ago over how to reshape America’s role in Afghanistan.
Although the president consulted a wide range of advisers about Libya, from Middle East experts and Pentagon brass to starry-eyed humanitarians, he acted with unprecedented speed and decisiveness. It was the first war he started on his own – and the success of the Libyan rebellion is largely the result of the decisions he made at the very outset of the uprising.
"It isn’t leading from behind," says Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former head of policy planning at the State Department, rejecting a quote in The New Yorker by an unnamed Obama adviser that came to dominate the debate over Libya. "We created the conditions for others to step up. That exemplifies Obama’s leadership at its best. The world is not going to get there without us – and we did it in a way where we’re not stuck, or bearing all the costs." (Hastings, Rolling Stone Magazine)