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The Western intervention in Libya is a test of a principle known as the responsibility to protect. When civilians are at risk and their own governments are either complicit or won't help, United Nations member states are supposed to step in. The principle has several advocates inside the Obama administration.
And as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, they seem to be playing an increasingly important role.
MICHELE KELEMEN: The New Republic calls them Obama's female hawks. National Interest dubs them the foreign policy Valkyries.
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 Ambassador Rice played a critical role in winning U.N. authorization for all means necessary to protect civilians in Libya.
But Anne-Marie Slaughter, who ran Clinton's policy planning office until recently, denies there is some sort of gender divide in the Obama administration.
ANNE: 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're being stylized as Amazons. That's ridiculous.
KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton initially took a cautious line on military intervention, turning only after she was assured that Arab states support it and would play a role. And 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 describes this way.
SLAUGHTER: We want an international order that everybody enforces, and the president himself has led that vision of the world. It's all over the national security strategy; indeed, it's all over the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review. That 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.
KELEMEN: Just because there's international support for a policy doesn't make it smart, counters Richard Haass, another former policy planning director now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
RICHARD HAASS: I don't think there is an Obama doctrine either in terms of foreign policy or in terms of these sorts of interventions. There's no way, if tomorrow there is a problem on this scale in, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Egypt or any other number of countries in the Middle East that the United States is going to do something similar. This is a one off.
KELEMEN: Haass says Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was an easy target because he's widely hated even in the region. But Haass says this can't be a template for American foreign policy.
HAASS: The person I'm fond of quoting in this context is John Quincy Adams, who, nearly two centuries ago, warned the United States should not go around the world in search of monsters to destroy.
KELEMEN: Obama administration officials say they had few good options. When they pushed for 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 U.S. has stood by and watched violence elsewhere, though, says one skeptic, Andrew Bacevich of Boston University.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Is it possible for the U.S. to stand by and allow the people of Zimbabwe to suffer under an oppressive regime? That's what we do. I think it's a question that I would want to ask people who support this principle of a responsibility to protect. The question is: Why here, why not there?
KELEMEN: Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter agrees the U.S. needs to be consistent but adds it should also take its cues from the region. And in the case of Libya, the Arab League endorsed an intervention to protect civilians.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.