Obama needs to resist the temptation to run away from Libya as quickly as possible, says FPI Director Robert Kagan

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With Muammar Qaddafi still at large, continued fighting in parts of Libya, and an uncertain future ahead for that country’s long-oppressed people, one hesitates to make too many categorical judgments about the remarkable turn of events there. A few things can be said, however.

The toppling of Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship is a huge victory for the ongoing pan-Arab revolution known as the Arab Spring. The political map of the Middle East has been torn up after four decades of stultifying, soul-draining dictatorship (or, as one prominent American statesman once put it, “forty years of stability”). A region known for its interminable dynasties and would-be dynasties—Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, the Husseins in Jordan, the Saudi royal family—is witnessing the fall of one after another of those anachronistic icons. Of the remaining hold outs, perhaps some of those wise and nimble enough to respond to the surge of popular demands will survive. The kings may turn themselves into constitutional monarchs, transferring much of their power to elected parliaments. But those who resist the tide will ultimately fall, and probably by force of arms—as in Libya.

In this respect, then, Libya was no sideshow. It was a critical part of the unfolding evolution of the region. Had Qaddafi been allowed to win his battle against the rebels, had his forces been allowed to enter the city of Benghazi, crush the rebellion, and carry out his promise to kill every last opponent of the regime, the aftershocks would have reverberated throughout the Middle East. That he has instead fallen to popular forces will also resonate, especially, one hopes, in Syria. The fall of Qaddafi significantly increases the pressure on the Assad regime in Damascus. Now even some of the conservative Gulf Arab states, some of whom backed the rebels in Libya, are lending their weight to the anti-Assad push. If and when the Damascus regime falls, the unseating of Qaddafi will be a significant part of the story.

That is one reason why the fall of Qaddafi is also a triumph for the United States and its NATO allies. There is much to criticize in the way NATO handled the operations. The Libyan intervention was certainly not the death knell for the alliance, as some have suggested, but neither was it a sign of great strength and vitality.

What is unquestionable, however, is that NATO stepped forward at a critical moment and turned the tide. The simple fact is that without NATO’s armed intervention, including nearly 8,000 strike sorties, the insertion of special forces, and the provision of military assistance to the rebels, Qaddafi would have succeeded in crushing the rebellion and massacring thousands if not tens of thousands of men, women, and children.

By intervening, with force, the NATO alliance not only saved the people of Libya and kept alive the momentum of the Arab Spring. The alliance also demonstrated, at a time when such demonstration is sorely needed, that the world’s great democracies are not enfeebled, ineffective, disunited, and in a state of terminal decline. They are, in fact, powerful, capable of acting in unison, and, most important, still committed to acting in the world on behalf of their interests and their ideals. That they succeeded in helping to topple Qaddafi, despite having tied at least one hand behind their own backs, shows that there is still life in those old bones. Just imagine if the democracies had come with their A game—that is, with the full power of the United States.

Still, the end of Qaddafi’s rule is a great accomplishment for the Obama administration and for the president personally. It is a shame that some administration officials are trying to downplay the role of the United States in this whole affair, absurdly trying to turn the “leading from behind” gaffe into a kind of Obama doctrine. In fact, the United States was not “leading from behind.” By far the most important decision taken by any world leader in this entire episode—the decision that made all the difference—was President Obama’s decision that the United States and the world could not stand by and see the people of Benghazi massacred.

That American choice was the turning point. All praise to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron for being ahead of the president in seeing the need for armed action—just as Margaret Thatcher was ahead of George H.W. Bush in seeing the need for action against Saddam Hussein in 1990. But here is the plain and critical truth of the matter: None of this could have been done without the United States leading the way.

Only the United States has the military capacity, the weaponry, the surveillance technology, and the skill to open a safe path for the air and ground war against Qaddafi’s forces. France and Britain alone would not and probably could not have done the job without unacceptable risk to their forces, which were very thin to begin with. In the early days, especially, American A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft were critical in pummeling Qaddafi’s armored vehicles and forcing them to halt offensives against rebel positions. In the last days of the conflict, American high-tech surveillance allowed the rebels to pinpoint the positions of Qaddafi forces in and around Tripoli. Throughout months of fighting, prowling American Predator drones forced Qaddafi and his men to keep their heads down.

The president and his secretary of state also carried out an adept diplomacy that eventually garnered not only European but, remarkably, Arab support as well. This in turn forced both Russia and China—fearful of Arab wrath—to acquiesce. There were costs, of course: a U.N. resolution inadequate to the task at hand and the usual problem of trying to keep many players on board during a mission. On balance, however, it was worth it. The administration was surely right that the intervention would be more effective if it did not appear to be exclusively an American operation and that the combination of European and Arab support for removing Qaddafi was enough of a prize to warrant some compromises.

But the larger point is that, again, only the United States could have pulled all these disparate political and regional forces together. No other nation, not France, not Great Britain, not even a united EU (which German opposition prevented) could have managed this global diplomatic task. In this allegedly “post-American” world, the United States remains both indispensable and irreplaceable.

Furthermore, the president deserves credit because his decision was unpopular and politically risky. The foreign policy establishment was almost unanimously opposed, and an assortment of wise men spent months predicting certain failure. In Congress a significant number of Republicans joined with the likes of Dennis Kucinich in opposing the military operation, to the point of voting not to authorize funding in June—a shameful moment for a party that under three consecutive presidents had stood for a robust and active U.S. role in the world. Some Republican presidential candidates, either out of opportunism or conviction, joined in opposition.

Many of the criticisms of the administration’s conduct were warranted. The Libyan intervention was certainly no beauty. The president was slow to take action. The arbitrary decision to stop flying the A-10s and AC-130s after only a few days of action was unwise and unnecessary, and may have prolonged the war by months. Nor is there any question that the president and his advisers were spooked by public opinion, worried about committing the United States to yet another intervention—in the Middle East, no less—and, in the midst of a crushing economic crisis, were looking to carry out the operation as cheaply as possible. Administration spinners who are now telling a gullible press corps what a brilliantly conceived operation this was from beginning to end know perfectly well that they are spouting nonsense.

But what’s new? American interventions, large and small, are never pretty. American presidents are always slow to see the need for action, always worried about their political backsides, and almost always looking for the exits as soon as they decide to act. Republican critics, especially those who served during the Reagan years or in either Bush administration, should look in the mirror. The Reagan folks may want to recall the handling of the intervention in Lebanon. The Bush I folks may want to remember their boss’s inaction in the early days of the Balkan slaughter. Those from Bush II need only look at Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States almost never does these things well. But sometimes we succeed nevertheless. This is one of those times.

Or at least one hopes so. The game in Libya is far from over. In one sense, it is only just beginning. There is an awful lot that can go wrong in a country that has been governed by a mad despot for four decades. The Obama administration is now where the Bush administration was in November 2001 in Afghanistan and in April 2003 in Iraq—the dictator has fallen but a new order has yet to emerge. The dangers are the same: disorder and anarchy, a return to violence, the possibility of Libya becoming a failed state. The common wisdom stemming from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan is that failure to manage the transition to a new government capable of holding the country together can rapidly turn success into disaster. Presumably the president and his advisers know this. Yet the temptation to run away from Libya as quickly as possible, after a “win” for the president, will be enormous. President Obama needs to resist it.

- Originally written for The Weekly Standard

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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