Barack Obama is well on his way to being a historically great foreign policy president. In fact, he may well already be one. Assuming there is no radical reversal in Libya, Obama will have demonstrated exactly how the U.S. should go about assisting an indigenous uprising seeking to overthrow a monstrous dictator. Exactly how. To the letter.
The U.S. has, over the past century-plus, overthrown dictators and overthrown some non-dictators, although this is not the place to go over our mistakes. We've also watched as dictators we wanted overthrown thumbed our noses at us for decades, including the one in Tripoli, the murderer behind Lockerbie.
Here, Obama saw a crisis and an opening, and provided the crucial assistance that allowed the Libyan people to overthrow Qaddafi. From the perspective of the Libyans, we cannot overstate the importance of this event. The loss of life among Libyans and overall was, as it always is, tragic, although these deaths will hopefully lead to a better future for that country. From the U.S. perspective, to have done what Obama did without the loss of a single soldier under his command is an unprecedented success. Clearly, our support for the Libyan people in their fight against Qaddafi will also improve our standing throughout the Arab world.
The comparison, of course, is between Obama's approach to Libya and George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Bush lied to the American people about the nature of Iraq's ability to threaten us with weapons of mass destruction, ordered a full-scale invasion which led to an occupation going on ten years that has cost thousands of American lives and those of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, not to mention trillions of dollars. Obama pursued a more modest yet ultimately far more effective strategy. The difference in results couldn't be more stark.
And, oh yeah, Obama got Bin Laden. That didn't just occur on his watch. Obama got Bin Laden. The President ordered a shift in U.S. foreign policy priorities. He put getting Bin Laden at the top of our list, whereas Bush had said that getting Bin Laden was "not a top priority use of American resources." President Obama also ordered the actual attack to be carried out even though there was a decent chance it might fail and embarrass him politically.
In more blunt terms, President Obama has avenged the two biggest terrorist attacks against Americans by foreign forces in the past 25 years: Lockerbie and 9/11, neither of which occurred on his watch. He's taken care of the unfinished business of the two iconic conservative presidents of the past generation: Reagan and G.W. Bush. Think about that. Some of you might not want to think about American foreign policy in those terms. But the American people do, and those kinds of emotions are part of how American presidents are judged.
More broadly, Obama has redefined how to use American power. Like he said way back in 2002:
I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.
Neither the U.S. nor the world can afford an American president who opposes all wars. Like it or not, the U.S. remains the most powerful country in the world. The idea that the U.S. should literally never use force is a dangerous one. Other countries will fill the vacuum, and that is not good from the perspective of the American people's interests or the causes of democracy and pluralism that we have--overall--done more to support than any other country on the planet (and no, I won't be debating that point here).
Barack Obama has shown that American force can be deployed effectively to achieve high priorities, like the assassination of Bin Laden and the takedown of Qaddafi. He has deployed the minimum force necessary to do the job, rather than the maximum force possible, regardless of the cost. He has not used force as a "show of force" (something the neo-cons talked openly of regarding the Iraq invasion) but rather to accomplish goals.
There remains much more to accomplish. Obama needs to successfully conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. These will not be easy tasks. He also needs to figure out how to successfully manage our relationship with Pakistan. Not an easy task. George W. Bush left him plenty to clean up.
However, if anyone had told you in 2008 that Barack Obama, in his first term, would have taken out Bin Laden and provided crucial assistance in the overthrow of Qaddafi--without putting a single American soldier on the ground in Libya--you'd have been pretty impressed, to say the least.
In conclusion, Barack Obama is well on his way to being a historically great foreign policy president. In fact, he may well already be one.
UPDATE: PS-Thanks for republishing!