The international intervention in Libya is a test of a principle known as the "responsibility to protect" — and it has thrown the spotlight on several women in the Obama administration who are proponents of this idea that U.N. member states should step in when civilians are at risk.
They include National Security Council staffer Samantha Power, who wrote an influential book on preventing genocide; U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whose views were shaped by U.S. inaction in Rwanda; and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who along with Rice played a critical role in winning U.N. authorization of using "all means necessary" to protect civilians in Libya.
But former Obama administration official Anne-Marie Slaughter says that "this idea of the women going to war is wildly overplayed."
"On the one hand, you get the women in the administration criticized because they focus on development issues and empowering women and humanitarian issues, and the next minute they are being stylized as Amazons — that's ridiculous," says Slaughter, who ran Clinton's policy planning office at the State Department until recently.
Clinton initially took a cautious line on military intervention, turning only after she was assured that Arab states supported it and would play a role. Slaughter, now back at Princeton University, says the end result of the Washington policy debate fell right into line with the Obama doctrine, which she sums up as "with power comes responsibility."
"We want an international order that everybody enforces, and the president himself has led that vision of the world," Slaughter says, adding, "In a world with multiple powers and more problems than any nation can deal with, we need lots of nations taking responsibility to enforce the international order."
"Simply because an operation is supported by others doesn't make the policy in and of itself smart," counters Richard Haass, another former State Department policy planning director who is now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
He says there is no Obama doctrine. "There's no way, if tomorrow there is a problem on this scale in, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Egypt or any number of countries in the Middle East, that the United States is going to do something similar," Haass says.
He describes the intervention in Libya as a "one-off" — possible only because Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is widely hated in the region.
Haass says this can't be a template for American foreign policy. He says he's fond of quoting John Quincy Adams, who "nearly two centuries ago warned [that] the United States should not go around the world in search of monsters to destroy."
Obama administration officials say they had few good options. When they pushed for the U.N. authorization, Gadhafi's forces were poised to overrun the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and they worried that they would be left to witness mass atrocities.
The United States has stood by and watched violence elsewhere, though, says another skeptic, Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who cites Zimbabwe and Congo as examples.
"A question I would want to ask people who support this principle of a responsibility to protect — the question is: Why here; why not there?" Bacevich says.
Slaughter, the former Obama administration official now back at Princeton, agrees the U.S. needs to be consistent, but she adds that it should also take its cues from the region. In the case of Libya, she argues, the Arab League endorsed an intervention to protect civilians.