Steve Clemons contrasts Obama’s handling of Libya and Syria:

With Syria, Obama is behaving in ways that run counter to the decision criteria he applied in Libya. He is committing intelligence and military resources to a crisis that does not have UN Security Council sanction, and he is not framing his response to the chemical weapons use in terms of either punishing the commanders who authorized their use — or to security those weapons. Instead, Obama is joining the rebel forces and committing to a regime change formula that could potentially falter. And that is before calculating the global strategic costs of getting in a nasty stand-off with Russia whose support is needed on other global challenges [bold mine-DL].

This is sloppy interventionism — strategically inchoate, potentially at conflict with other larger and more important U.S. strategic goals, and potentially the kind of commitment that obligates the United States to support a rebellion that America avoided doing in the Libyan case.

Clemons gives the intervention in Libya more credit for coherence and planning than it deserves. The Libyan intervention was in conflict with larger and more important U.S. strategic goals, and it damaged the relationship with Russia, but these things were dismissed as irrelevant at the time. That said, the main problem with the analysis here is that it fails to account for how the administration’s muddled Syria policy is in many respects a product of the decision to intervene in Libya. The Libyan war created false hopes of similar action elsewhere, but it also applied a standard for intervention that the conflict in Syria would not be able to meet. Partly to placate critics at home, the administration emphasized the unique, virtually unrepeatable conditions that made direct intervention in Libya feasible. Because those conditions didn’t and still don’t exist in the Syrian case, there was not going to be the same response to an armed conflict there. However, the Libyan intervention was also justified in the loftiest terms, and the fact that the U.S. had nothing at stake in Libya’s civil war was treated as a virtue. This created expectations that the U.S. would be compelled to take similar action in response to Syria’s conflict, where the U.S. supposedly has more at stake.

Trapped in part by his own rhetoric, Obama nonetheless felt obliged to “speak out” against Assad while the Libyan war was still going on, and ever since then the administration has lurched from one unwise declaration to another. Having made these declarations, he seems to have felt compelled to follow through on them. Obama has also been hemmed in on the other side by the fact that the U.N. authorization that made intervention in Libya technically legal will never be given to an escalated U.S. military role in Syria. Russian and Chinese abstentions on the Libya resolution created an illusion of broad international consensus for the war that never really existed, and now that illusion has since been dispelled. It is also possible that Russia’s abstention in 2011 encouraged the administration to expect similar Russian cooperation on Syria, but if so they failed to take account of Russia’s greater interest in Syria and how displeased Moscow was by the Libyan war.

The Libyan war itself may have created the false impression that U.S. backing would be quickly forthcoming to other anti-regime rebels. On the one hand, the Libyan war was supposed to set a precedent and deter dictators from engaging in brutal repression, which it obviously didn’t do. On the other, it was supposed to be a one-time policy that would not be copied in the future. The Syria policy that has emerged over the last two years is the result of insisting that Libya was a great success that should not be replicated elsewhere.