WASHINGTON — The Libyan war could well be called the not-Iraq war.
Eight years ago Saturday, President George W. Bush launched the U.S. invasion of Iraq, without an explicit mandate from the United Nations and without much concern over which U.S. allies went along.
France vehemently opposed the invasion and had tried to scuttle it diplomatically a month earlier.
Fast forward to 2011, and the diplomatic picture is turned upside-down: France led the charge Saturday to intervene in Libya to protect civilians from Moammar Gadhafi's rampage, and President Barack Obama is the reluctant warrior, sending in ships and missiles to support the mission, but insisting that every step must have international backing and deferring to the Europeans to lead.
Instead of American "shock and awe," there is time-consuming diplomacy and careful consideration of options.
While the Iraq war and the Libya crisis differ fundamentally in many ways, the question now, according to outside experts, is whether Obama's multilateral approach will turn out any better than Bush's unilateralism.
Will military action begin a slap of dominoes that leads to Gadhafi's departure? If the U.S. and its allies bomb Gadhafi's military assets with little effect, will the U.S. be pressured to take a more active, even leading, military role? Who will rebuild Libya once Gadhafi is gone — or if his country fractures into two demi-states?
"However this ends, it ends with heavy burdens," said Daniel P. Serwer, a retired U.S. diplomat with experience in conflict and post-conflict reconstruction in the Balkans, Iraq and elsewhere.
The prospect of such burdens has, by all accounts, made Obama averse to rushing into Libya and willing to cede the lead role to others. The legacy, and costs, of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars seem written all over his policy.
In remarks Friday on Libya, the president didn't attempt to hide his unease with a third U.S. intervention in a Muslim-majority nation in a decade.
"The United States did not seek this outcome," he said. With U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan and winding down a mission in Iraq, the decision "is only made more difficult," he added.
Obama carefully circumscribed the U.S. role. The U.S. will not deploy ground troops in Libya or "use force to go beyond a well-defined goal," the protection of civilians, he said.
The words of the president and his advisers signal a determination not to inject the U.S., widely distrusted by Arab populations, into the region's political unrest; concern about military overstretch; and the cold, hard fact of a depleted U.S. Treasury.
White House officials have vigorously defended the pace of Obama's response since Gadhafi turned his military power on peaceful protesters. "The speed of the international reaction here has been quite remarkable," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday, adding, "We are moving with a great deal of haste."
A broad spectrum of political figures, from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., to conservatives such as John Bolton, have complained that the president has moved too cautiously, wasting precious time as Gadhafi's forces have advanced against rebels in eastern and western Libya.
"We've lost a huge opportunity by allowing over a month to go by without taking action," said Bolton, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and Bush's ambassador to the U.N.
Waiting for the Arab League to endorse a no-fly zone, as Obama did, was unnecessary, Bolton said. Even without such an endorsement, Arab states "would have grumbled," but would have gone along with military action in Libya, he said.
Serwer, now at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, agreed in part, saying "I was very impatient with how long they were taking. I do think they could have started earlier and moved faster."
But Serwer called the U.N. Security Council's authorization Thursday of military action in Libya "a diplomatic achievement of considerable dimensions."
Obama and the Europeans managed to avoid a veto by skeptical Russia and China, while keeping the U.S. somewhat in the background and the Europeans in the foreground. The resolution permits "all necessary measures" short of "a foreign occupation force" to protect Libyan civilians.
European diplomats expressed confidence that the French, British and other European air forces are up to the job of enforcing a no-fly zone and prevent Gadhafi attacks on rebels, albeit with U.S. logistical and intelligence support.
But as the U.S. experience in Iraq shows, military interventions often take unexpected turns.
If Obama needed a reminder, he could have looked out front of the White House to Lafayette Park on Friday, before he left for a trip to South and Central America, to see protesters gathering to mark the anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
The U.S. and the international community writ large have limited "spare capacity" remaining for military intervention or reconstructing shattered nations, Serwer said.
A post-Gadhafi Libya could see revenge killings on a large scale, he said, and because of Gadhafi's complete dominance of society for nearly 42 years, there are no independent state institutions, as in Egypt or Tunisia.
"I see a state-building task here that hasn't been talked about at all," he added. "The point is, this is just the beginning."
(Margaret Talev contributed to this article.)
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