In this morning’s Washington Post, columnist E. J. Dionne laments, “It’s remarkable how reluctant Obama’s opponents are to acknowledge that despite all the predictions that his policy of limited engagement could never work, it actually did.”
The reality is that Libya is a pyrrhic victory for the Obama administration. If anything, the past five months have only served to underscore the necessity of robust American leadership in world affairs, and presidential leadership at home. Both were sorely lacking in the case of Libya.
The administration’s mixed messages and initial handwringing about Libya’s revolution in March confused allies as well as intervention skeptics such as China and Russia. Its incoherent legal case for the eventual intervention and the mismatch between the goal of removing Qaddafi and the narrower mandate of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 led to bipartisan condemnation of the administration’s actions by Congress.
The U.S. decision to limit its involvement several weeks into the conflict caused cash-strapped European governments to run short on ammunition and scramble to effectively deploy their limited military resources. A more robust use of force during this initial period, including greater use of ground-attack aircraft such as AC-130s and A-10s, could have completely crippled Qaddafi’s forces at the onset. The president’s declaration that there would not be any American boots on the ground left allied special forces on their own to assist the untrained rebel forces and guide NATO air strikes. The participation of American special operators would have undoubtedly put the alliance in a stronger position to pressure Qaddafi. All of these actions allowed Qaddafi to stay in power for months longer than necessary, resulting in countless unnecessary deaths.
Moreover, while President Obama called for Qaddafi to go on March 3, it was not until July 15 that the United States officially recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as Libya’s legitimate governing authority. Doing so earlier might have bolstered the TNC’s international credibility and led to an earlier resolution of the effort to allow frozen Qaddafi assets to be handed over to them.
Apart from his initial address to the nation on March 28, the president made very little effort to explain the strategic rationale of the Libyan operation to a skeptical Congress and American public. The zenith of the political uproar came in late June, when the House of Representative voted not to authorize the operations in Libya, but did not cut off current funding. While the actual impact of those votes was negligible, the message being sent to friends and foes alike was one of waning American resolve.
Despite the president’s indecisiveness on Libya, the wave of revolutions in the Middle East continues. The people of Libya now have the opportunity to chart a better course for their future in part because of U.S. assistance, but also, to some extent, in spite of the president’s approach. As for Mr. Dionne, he should recognize the difference between winning well and winning ugly.
— Jamie M. Fly is executive director and Evan Moore Policy Analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative.