For President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya, where a reluctant commander in chief put strict limits on American military engagement and let NATO allies take the lead in backing the rebels.
Mr. Obama’s carefully calibrated response infuriated critics on the right and left, who blamed him either for ceding American leadership in a foreign conflict or for blundering into another Arab land without an exit strategy.
But with Colonel Qaddafi joining the lengthening list of tyrants and terrorists dispatched during the Obama presidency, even critics conceded a success for Mr. Obama’s approach to war — one that relies on collective, rather than unilateral, action; on surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments.
"I think the administration deserves great credit," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said in an interview on CNN. "Obviously, I had different ideas on the tactical side, but the world is a better place."
Mr. McCain had called for the United States to impose a no-fly zone over Libya in the early days of the rebellion, and to use heavier air power against the Qaddafi forces once the NATO operation began — measures that Mr. McCain said he still believed would have brought down the dictator far sooner.
The president rebuffed those calls, deciding on a more cautious strategy that depended on marshaling the support of NATO allies and Libya’s Arab neighbors, and shifting much of the burden of the air campaign to Britain and France. It was a strategy suited to a country weary of war and strapped for cash.
"Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end," Mr. Obama said in a Rose Garden address that served as a muted victory lap. "We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century."
Mr. Obama drew a link between Colonel Qaddafi’s downfall and the killings of Osama bin Laden and other leaders of Al Qaeda, saying they show the "strength of American leadership across the world." But it is a very different kind of leadership than that exercised by President George W. Bush or other presidents.
The strategy was summed up trenchantly by an unnamed Obama adviser, who described it in an article in The New Yorker magazine as "leading from behind," a turn of phrase seized on by critics like Mr. McCain.
"It’s time to set aside the snide interpretations of ‘leading from behind,’ and simply call it leading," said David Rothkopf, a foreign policy expert who wrote a history of the National Security Council. "This was the kind of multilateral, affordable, effective endeavor that any foreign policy initiative aspires to."
Even so, Mr. Obama is not likely to get any lasting political credit for the success of the Libyan rebellion — just as he received only a fleeting bounce in the polls after the commando raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan.
The Republican presidential candidates certainly did not rush to credit Mr. Obama. Eric Fehrnstrom, an aide to Mitt Romney, said in a statement that Colonel Qaddafi’s death "brings to an end a brutal chapter in Libya’s history, but that does not validate the president’s approach to Libya. The credit goes to the people of Libya."
Later, after a campaign appearance in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Mr. Romney was asked whether the president deserved some credit. "Yes, yes, absolutely," he said, before disappearing through a back door.
Mr. Obama, his aides say, has long tried to balance a willingness to intervene in cases of mass atrocities with a reluctance to be drawn into large-scale combat. Last week, for example, he ordered 100 armed military advisers to Uganda, where they will help regional forces fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, a renegade group that has raped and murdered villagers in central Africa.
On Wednesday, Mr. Obama reiterated that he decided to intervene in Libya after Colonel Qaddafi’s "forces started going city to city, town by town to brutalize men, women and children." But he also made a point of noting that the United States was winding down the Iraq war and turning over security in Afghanistan to the Afghans.
Left unsaid was another central element of Mr. Obama’s war-fighting strategy: a shadowy string of drone bases, where the United States sends out unmanned aircraft to hunt suspected terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Qaeda propagandist, who was killed last month in Yemen.
"Nobody could have predicted that in a six-month period, you’d see the deaths of Muammar Qaddafi, Osama bin Laden and Anwar Awlaki," said Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. "But it flows directly out of the decisions the president has made since the beginning of his administration."
Sticking to limited operations like Libya also makes sense at a time when the White House is seeking to cut at least $400 billion out of the Pentagon budget. "The whole thing cost $1 billion," said Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It’s a rounding error."
The problem for Mr. Obama, analysts said, is that Libya is not much of a template for other conflicts.
In Bahrain, for example, strategic considerations and Saudi Arabia’s resistance constrain American options. In Syria, Russia and China have blocked efforts to ratchet up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, partly out of anger with what they view as a military mission in Libya that exceeded its writ.
"In Syria, which is the linchpin of the Middle East, what happened in Libya cannot be replicated," said Martin S. Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. "There is no international consensus; on the contrary, there is an international divide."
This article, "Another Victory for a New Approach to War," first appeared in The New York Times.