Watching Barack Obama’s handling of the Libya crisis is a frustrating endeavor. He waited for weeks while perhaps thousands were killed by Qaddafi and Libyan rebels went from the outskirts of Tripoli to the verge of defeat. Then the president and his international coalition eventually stepped in and successfully protected the city of Benghazi, with a population of 700,000, preventing what some administration officials have rightly warned would have been a “Srebrenica on steroids.”
That said, his reliance on international approbation and reluctance to lead has made America appear weak and indecisive, allowing others, such as the United Kingdom and France, to show their mettle. Indeed, as NATO agreed to take over leadership of the operation in recent days, a senior administration official had the gall to tell the New York Times, “In some ways, how it turns out is not on our shoulders.”
This is delusional. What happens in Libya in the weeks and months ahead, both good and bad, will be on President Obama’s watch and will be his responsibility. Qaddafi’s forces still remain in control of a significant portion of the country. Neutered somewhat by coalition air strikes, they have continued to use artillery and ground forces against other contested cities, such as Misurata. And, accounts emerging from Tripoli when Western journalists can escape their minders should remind the coalition that its humanitarian objective of protecting the Libyan people will not be met until Qaddafi is removed from power.
The goal of the United States and its primary allies rightly remains Qaddafi’s departure, but they refuse to declare that this is the goal of the United Nations–sanctioned military operation. This has limited the direct support the coalition seems willing to provide rebel forces attempting to head west to Tripoli. The coalition appears to be drawing a line at attacking forces in urban areas, with the exception of established military bases, for fear of civilian casualties. Despite these limitations, rebel forces were able to retake the city of Ajdabiya on Saturday.
Hopefully this is a sign that the United States and its allies have begun working more closely with the opposition to select targets. This likely requires Special Forces or paramilitary teams on the ground similar to those that helped the Northern Alliance oust the Taliban from Kabul in 2001. President Obama’s public vow at the outset to “not deploy any U.S. troops on the ground” likely has limited our ability to carry out this important task.
Recognizing the Libyan National Transitional Council and providing institution-building assistance and humanitarian aid as soon as possible are also key. All of these actions can be taken without the president forgoing his questionable insistence on America taking a back seat and will go a long way toward assisting the overthrow of Qaddafi and ending this crisis without a drawn out stalemate and months of coalition military operations.
The success or failure of the intervention in Libya will hinge upon American political and military leadership. The president cannot absolve himself of responsibility by passing the buck to Brussels. This is something the president, having already saved thousands of Libyan lives, needs to realize if the early gains of his intervention in Libya are not to be reversed.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative.