As He Talks Libya, Iraq Seems Fresh in Obama's Mind

The president's Libya thinking as a product of George W. Bush's 2003 invasion

When a politician expresses doubts about foreign policy and quickly follows by praising the American military, it's clear something of note has just been said, something usually about Iraq.

That's what President Obama did Monday as he explained his authorization of airstrikes against targets in Libya. Taking his first televised, public question since the bombings began on Saturday, Obama said Monday:

I think it's also important to note that the way that the U.S. took leadership and managed this process ensures international legitimacy and ensures that our partners, members of the international coalition are bearing the burden of following through on the mission, as well.  Because, as you know, in the past there have been times where the United States acted unilaterally or did not have full international support, and as a consequence typically it was the United States military that ended up bearing the entire burden.

One of those times--when the U.S. acted without broad international agreement and bore the brunt of the responsibility for years to come, despite the partnership of an international coalition--happened in 2003, when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, after Secretary of State Colin Powell presented single-sourced, and indeed faulty, information to the United Nations in the hopes of garnering exactly what Obama mentioned: legitimacy. After offering this caveat, Obama quickly praised the U.S. military's pursuit of his orders in Libya.

There have been other points in history when the U.S. took unilateral action, or took a lead role in international conflict, but we could be forgiven for thinking immediately, as Obama said these words, of the Iraq invasion. It's because of Iraq (and now Afghanistan) that Americans are still sensitive about the prospect of military action in the Middle East. Displaying that same sensitivity, Obama was initially reluctant to engage the military in another Middle East intervention at all.

Throughout the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about multilateralism, international legitimacy, and restoring America's world status. It was exactly what liberals and disaffected independents wanted to hear: They were sick of the Iraq war, jaded by how the Bush administration sold it to begin with, and concerned that Bush had sullied America's global image just two years after 9/11.

Today, Obama has couched his Libya approach in multilateralism, legitmacy, and the will of the UN. When he announced the strikes on Saturday, Obama stressed that the U.S. military was acting "in support of an international effort," "with a broad coalition that is committed to enforcing United Nations Council Resolution 1973."

He's taken criticism for that approach from the likes of Rick Santorum and John Bolton, who have warned that America's military has become the army of the UN. Not to dismiss this line of thinking, but it's the same neocon logic that supports unilateralism in general. It's a Bush-era paradigm, criticizing a military intervention that's distinctly post-Bush.

If Obama's presidency is a product of the Iraq war, it's worth considering that his handling of Libya might just be, too.