Opportunities and Perils for Obama in Military Action in Libya

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Politicians define themselves by choosing enemies, and exemplars. Suddenly, President Obama’s choices on Libya are reshaping his profile in unpredictable ways as he heads into the 2012 election season.

The president and his advisers have already highlighted the central factors that influenced Mr. Obama’s decision to act militarily, a process he plans to explain more fully to the nation at 7:30 p.m. Monday.

In Muammar el-Qaddafi, Mr. Obama saw an autocrat on the verge of committing mass murder.

In Bill Clinton, he saw a president who chose not to stop such atrocities and later regretted it.

In George W. Bush, he saw a go-it-alone style of intervention ill suited to the transformative forces now sweeping across the Middle East.

Those judgments produced the diplomatically chaotic, militarily complicated and strategically ambiguous Libyan action by the United States and an array of allies. Mr. Obama calls it not an act of war but rather a quickly arranged and temporary humanitarian response representing “how the international community should work.”

Yet his choices face withering questions from friends and foes alike. A rapid departure by Colonel Qaddafi and American forces would quiet them; an extended commitment would undercut his oft-repeated focus on economic revival at home.

“If Jeffersonian Democrats take over in Libya, he’s a hero,” said Robert Borosage, who directs the liberal Campaign for America’s Future. “If he gets stuck in an ongoing civil war, then it could be enormously costly to the country, and to him politically.”...

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