The Sydney Morning Herald

By Geoffrey Garrett

The launching of cruise missiles against Libya from naval vessels in the Mediterranean marks a major shift in the foreign policy of the US President, Barack Obama.

For two years, Obama's fundamental goal has been a realist one: to reduce the US's exposure to costly foreign wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan that do not fit a narrow definition of the national interest. With military action against Libya, Obama has turned more idealist, adopting a more expansive definition of US national interests that will have many Bush neocons smiling.

But Obama's Libyan gambit is far from the in-your-face unilateralism of the Bush era. Instead it channels the part-heart, part-head, part-principles, part-pragmatism balancing act of Bill Clinton's 1990s liberal internationalism.

For weeks Obama was criticised for waiting in the wings while the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, assembled a coalition for action. Now the US will be expected to do much of the heavy lifting in the UN Security Council resolution-backed action, but it will do so as part of an international team featuring Bush's bete noir, France.

US involvement will be all high-tech bombing from the air and sea, with no American boots on the ground - and little American blood to be spilt. Obama's objective is only to stop the slaughter of Libyan civilians by Gaddafi's forces. Overthrowing the regime will be up to the Libyans.

In the end, Obama had little choice. In his gut, he sides with the view that the international community has a responsibility to protect citizens whose rulers turn against them just because they want more say in how they are governed. Political, economic and military realities, however, mean that the bar to US engagement in another ground war is sky-high.

With memories of September 11, 2001, receding, the American public is sick and tired of a decade of war. Three years ago Obama rode that sentiment from the Iowa caucuses to the White House. The US budget is haemorrhaging red ink, and Obama has pledged to slow the growth in military spending. With probably 200,000 US troops still occupied in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and rising concerns about China's east Asian aspirations, the American military is stretched close to breaking point.

These are much tougher conditions than Clinton had to face in the 1990s when the US had defeated the Soviet Union, its economy was riding high, and the military had the luxury of thinking about what its post-Cold War role should be. Yet Clinton's answer, the most robust version of liberal internationalism, came unstuck at its first hurdle.

In 1993 Somalia was ablaze in civil war, with the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid blamed for tens of thousands of bloody civilian deaths. The UN Security Council passed resolutions authorising the use of force to stop the killing in Somalia. Clinton chose to act decisively, dropping elite ground troops into Mogadishu to defeat Aidid.

But the plan backfired spectacularly, and 19 US soldiers died. This came to be known by the Hollywood blockbuster title Black Hawk Down after the helicopters that were shot from the sky, at a stroke reducing the ambition of Clinton's foreign policy for the rest of the decade.

Clinton never deployed US ground troops again, even though the subsequent civilian killings in Bosnia and Kosovo were at least as atrocious as in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia was more important geopolitical real estate.

Despite more UN Security Council resolutions and full NATO support, the US was slow to enter the conflict and remained unwilling to fight on the ground. Instead, Bosnia became a no-fly zone and massive US bombing campaigns led to the Dayton Accords peace treaty and ultimately the fall of Slobodan Milosevic.

After the miracles of people power in Tunisia and Egypt, the stakes in coming to the aid of the people in Libya are at least as high as they were in Bosnia and Kosovo. Libya is a significant player in global oil markets. Muammar Gaddafi is known to have supported two major airline terrorist attacks against the US and the West. The case for intervention is clear. But so are the potential costs.

The US is neither as confident nor as powerful as it was two decades ago. Its existing international commitments are much more extensive and costly. Another deadly land war with no clear end is out of the question.

Obama's first two years in office were characterised by lofty rhetoric but cautious actions in foreign policy. Now he faces his biggest foreign policy challenge. His heart tells him to do all he can to help the Libyans, but his head says that this help cannot put too many Americans in harm's way.

There should be no surprise his script is following Clinton's idealism-realpolitik balancing act.

Professor Geoffrey Garrett is chief executive of the United States studies centre at the University of Sydney.