Obama Goes to War the Millennial Way

America's engagement in Libya has provoked a spasm of commentary from seasoned hands in the foreign policy establishment and pundits of all political stripes complaining that President Obama's decision to join in the United Nations' sanctioned, multi-lateral effort to protect civilians from Muammar Gaddafi was either confused, wrong-headed, or naïve, or all of the above.

But the decision was none of those things. It was simply another example of the president making a policy decision in ways that instinctively reflect the beliefs and behaviors of his most loyal supporters, the Millennial generation, born between 1982 and 2003.  The last time a generation like the Millennials (a type labeled "civic" by generational theorists) came of age it was the GI or Greatest Generation in the 1930s and 1940s. That generation moved America from international isolation to activism and this newest generation's influence on foreign policy is likely to be equally profound.

Millennials have been taught since they were toddlers that the best way to solve a societal problem is to act upon it directly, and as a part of a larger group.  That is exactly what President Obama has done with America demurring to take a permanent lead in the joint effort in order not to offend the sensibilities of NATO allies and Arabs alike.

Foreign policy practitioners and analysts traditionally tend to think about the world in terms of relationships between nation-states and their political regimes.  By contrast, Millennials are more apt to believe that  causes requiring global solutions, such as climate change  or human rights abuses, are of equal, if not greater, importance. For example, the percentage of Millennials who favor U.S. military intervention to spread democracy are almost exactly the reverse of the number supporting armed American action to stop genocide. Only 12 percent of Millennials favor military intervention to promote democracy, while 45 percent are opposed. By contrast, 42 percent of Millennials support using U.S. armed forces to halt genocide, while only 14 percent do not. (http://www.iop.harvard.edu/var/ezp_site/storage/fckeditor/file/100307_IOP_Spring_2010_Topline.pdf)

Obama's decision to intervene in Libya only when the murderous Gaddafi threatened to hunt down "without mercy" his own "people hiding in their closets" was not a matter of waiting too long or a reflection of the president's inability to make a decision. He was simply acting when the threat of genocide was real, and not when events in Libya, or in any other Mideast country for that matter, were about uprisings demanding a more democratic style of government.

The Obama administration has been in favor of expanding human rights in Arab countries since the President's Cairo speech in 2009, but has never embraced the strategy advocated by neo-conservatives, who are now cheering America's enforcement of a no-fly zone so long as it leads to regime change and the spread of democracy in the Maghreb.

"All people yearn for certain things," the President said almost two years ago. "The ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights."  (http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/newbeginning/transcripts)

By focusing on the issue of civil liberties, and not on implementing American- style political and governmental institutions, Obama pointed the way toward a cause that young people everywhere could, and eventually did, embrace. And unlike many of the critics of his current policies, he has been steadfast in both identifying the ideals America seeks to advance and in finding pragmatic ways to make progress toward them.

The approach contains the same mix of idealism and pragmatism, with a heavy emphasis on finding a consensus solution that works for everyone in the group, that members of the youngest politically active generation of Americans use in addressing any of life's challenges. By a three-to-one margin, Millennials believe that the United States should take the opinion of other countries into account when making foreign policy decisions.  By a nearly two-to-one ratio, Millennials believe that the best way to protect America's national security is through building strong alliances with other countries rather than by relying primarily on our military strength (54% vs. 29%).  (http://ndn.org/sites/default/files/paper/21st%20Century%20America%20Project%20March%202010%20PPT%20Presentation.pdf) The deferential, almost to the point of being invisible, way that the President exercised his leadership in forming a coalition to halt Gaddafi's plans for genocide are perfectly aligned with these generational beliefs. 

Women play a much more prominent role in decision-making among Millennials and some have pointed to the role women played in arguing for and announcing the decision to intervene militarily in Libya as well.  But the President's decisions over the last few months have also reinforced the fundamental beliefs of Millennials at a much more substantive level.  They believe that America's foreign policy should be grounded in multilateralism and reflect our most deeply held values. If present day critics of Barack Obama could stop talking long enough to see through their own generational biases in favor of confrontation and conflict, they might begin to detect a change in U.S. foreign policy that will be as significant as the one that occurred 80 years ago.

Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais are fellows of NDN and the New Policy Institute and co-authors of "Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube, and the Future of American Politics" and the upcoming "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation is Remaking America."