'Obama Doctrine,' NATO Strengthened by Gadhafi Downfall

Experts offer cautious praise for Obama Libya strategy as uncertainty lingers.

Aug. 22, 2011— -- When President Obama announced military intervention in Libya in March, he was criticized by liberals for injecting the United States into a third war, and by conservatives for doing it too slowly.

As the mission dragged on, from "days and weeks" to months, the bipartisan criticism only grew, with charges that Obama was "leading from behind" and violating the War Powers Act in the process.

Now, the impending downfall of Moammar Gadhafi brings one of Obama's key foreign policy objectives closer to fulfillment, and signals that the president's strategy was at least partly a success.

"As of today, I think it is a partial vindication of the so-called Obama Doctrine, at least for certain kinds of cases," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military and foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Obama had justified limited, pre-emptive U.S. military action in Libya as part a broad "international mandate for action" and compelling humanitarian interest to prevent "violence on a horrific scale," all while not requiring formal congressional approval. He charted a course for greater U.S. support for multinational action instead of isolationism or unilateral force.

"The robust leadership of the president is pretty clear here," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said, "and had a tangible impact on the outcome in Libya."

But the administration should avoid a victory lap too soon, foreign policy experts warn, with Gadhafi's whereabouts still unknown and the transition to new government in Libya in flux.

"Obama hasn't yet proven that he's going to avoid the problem George Bush faced in Iraq: the problem of catastrophic success," O'Hanlon said. "We should all be a little chastened by the example of 2003 in Iraq and any feeling of triumphalism just because the bad guy falls. We've seen what follows."

Two months after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush delivered a speech claiming victory in toppling Saddam Hussein's regime. Eight years after that moment -- what has become known as his "mission accomplished" speech -- the war still lingers.

"The danger is that we will have another 'Mission Accomplished' moment, when French President Nicolas Sarkozy, NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen, President Obama, and their various pro-intervention advisers give each other a lot of high-fives, utter solemn words about having vindicated the new 'Responsibility to Protect' doctrine, and then turn to some new set of problems while Libya deteriorates," Harvard University professor Stephen M. Walt said in a blog post on ForeignPolicy.com.

Speaking from his seaside compound on Martha's Vineyard, Obama offered reassurances that NATO allies would not abandon Libya but instead remain "a friend and a partner," continuing military and diplomatic ties to "safeguard" the Libyan people.

Meanwhile, conservative critics of Obama insist the ouster of Gadhafi had little to do with U.S. strategy at all, voicing renewed concerns that the administration might bungle the transition.

"If the post-war process mimics the war-fighting process, in which we have a pretty strong disconnect between the outcome we want and the means we're willing to deploy to achieve the outcome, I think there's reason to still be skeptical," said Tom Donnelly, a military and foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

"It could have been done quicker, better, faster and with less killing," he said.

While the White House is eager to count the toppling of the Libyan regime as a net positive for the administration, how American voters will view the development remains unclear.

The Libyan conflict has remained low on the list of issues about which Americans are most concerned, according to recent polls. And informal surveys of residents on Martha's Vineyard, where Obama is vacationing this week, have seemed to echo that point.

When told about the situation in Libya by ABC News, several island residents replied quizzically, "Libya?"

And if the killing of Osama bin Laden, which occurred just three months ago, is a guide, any short-term bounce for the president and the administration could be tenuous, at best.

The most recent Gallup poll found 42 percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of foreign affairs, down 9 points from May. His overall approval rating in the same poll stands at 41 percent.

ABC News' Stephanie Z. Smith contributed to this report.