Does Barack Obama know what he's doing?
The question isn't purely rhetorical because Obama's response to the cascade of global crises over the past several weeks has often seemed mystifying. He supported pro-democracy forces in Egypt and nudged out a regime the U.S. had backed for decades, but has been unwilling to do the same in Bahrain or Yemen. In Libya, his Administration was against armed intervention to stop Muammar Gaddafi before Obama was for it. American warplanes carried out the initial wave of strikes on Tripoli, but Obama's aides insist that Washington is merely following the Europeans' lead. U.S. officials were reticent for days as the nuclear crisis in Japan worsened, then declared the situation to be even direr than the Japanese government had let on.
As the crises accumulate, Obama has remained the picture of detached serenity, which only agitates his critics more. Kori Schake, a centrist former Bush Administration official, charges that Obama "just isn't willing to bear much freight for other peoples' freedom." The Economist's Lexington column asks, "Has he, at any point in his presidency so far, demonstrated real political courage?" and is unable to find an example. David J. Rothkopf, a national-security expert who worked in the Clinton Administration, says Obama's leadership style resembles nothing so much as "the planet's master of ceremonies nudging, exhorting and charming, but less comfortable flexing U.S. muscles than many of his predecessors."
And yet Obama himself probably wouldn't disagree with such a caricature. The President is congenitally allergic to the bellicose language Presidents typically employ to summon the dogs of war. In announcing the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn, Obama stressed that the coalition's goal isn't to remove Gaddafi; military force would not be used beyond "a well-defined goal specifically the protection of civilians in Libya." And he took pains to give multilateral cover to American action. "American leadership is essential," he said, "but that does not mean acting alone it means shaping the conditions for the international community to act together."
Those words go to the heart of what Obama hopes to accomplish as Commander in Chief. In his two years in office, Obama's approach to foreign policy has emphasized the limits of American power more than its reach. He has wound down the American engagement in Iraq and stated a desire, if not a concrete plan, to withdraw substantial numbers of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. His Administration has tried to soothe relations with potential rivals like China and Russia rather than confront them. It has resisted calls for military action against Iran. As a candidate in 2008, Obama talked of the need for aggressive international efforts to alleviate suffering in other countries caused by "poverty, genocide and disease." Since then, political strife and armed conflict have caused untold miseries in places such as Sudan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast and yet the U.S. has stayed out of all of them.
Such restraint reflects the President's personality. "He is by nature a prudent, cautious, measured person," says David M. Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prizewinning historian who has met with Obama. "He's not an enthusiast. He wants to be deliberate and careful, and the way in which he looks at the world reflects that."
It also suits the mood of the public, which has little appetite for more foreign adventures. A poll taken by the Pew Research Center before last week's U.N. Security Council vote imposing a no-fly zone over Libya found that only 27% of Americans believed the U.S. had a responsibility to act there, a lower level of support than what previously existed for intervention in Darfur (51%), Kosovo (47%) or Bosnia (30%). And anyway, the U.S. has "less capacity militarily, economically, politically and morally to shape the international environment than it has had in a long, long time," Kennedy says.
Still, as presidential historian Robert Dallek says, "A President cannot sit on his hands and be seen as passive in the face of ruthless action by a foreign dictator." But Obama can't do it alone. And that's why Libya matters.
By all accounts, Obama was reluctant to authorize the use of force and only agreed to do so when it became clear that Britain, France and members of the Arab League were prepared not just to join a military campaign but also help lead it. The Security Council's Resolution 1973 is thus a watershed for Obama's modest, multilateralist foreign policy. Whether the Libyan regime crumbles as a result of allied air strikes may ultimately be less significant than the international community endorsing action against tyranny and aggression, even with Washington insisting on a supporting role. The coalition against Gaddafi is an admonishment to other despots in the region who claim that national sovereignty gives them the right to brutalize their people in the name of preserving stability.
Of course, it's hard to imagine that embattled regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen or Saudi Arabia won't resort to violence anyway; Western leaders have given no indication that they would intervene in Bahrain or Yemen as they are doing in Libya. Obama still hasn't spelled out to the American people, as he should, the nation's stake in the outcome of the Arab Spring and how far the Administration is willing to go to support it. But the world's intervention in defense of Libya's citizens has already helped vindicate some aspects of the President's low-key, consensus-seeking, sometimes curiously passive approach to managing the U.S.'s role in the world. It demonstrates that multilateralism can serve American interests. And it's a reminder that sometimes America can lead best from the back.
Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs appears every Monday on TIME.com.