Is the horrific murder of the loathsome Qaddafi a sign of things to come or an aberration of the mob? Will Libya become a Somalia on the Mediterranean or follow Tunisia’s path (which itself is not assured)? Some conservatives will argue that the removal of Saddam, the fostering of consensual government in Iraq, and support for constitutional government elsewhere in the Middle East — despite the demonization and eventual near destruction of the Bush administration — set the stage for what followed. Liberals will counter that “leading from behind” diminished knee-jerk Anti-Americanism by lowering our profile and allowed others to help along Qaddafi’s exit at little cost.
Some general observations:
1. As we see with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt, the end of dictators is not the end of problems. The more the U.S. invests, the more it has some control over the outcome—and yet the more it will spend money and lives, the more political criticism it earns, here and abroad. Note that the U.S. can control the postbellum government much better in an Iraq or Afghanistan than in Libya or Egypt, given the greater military investment, but now at a political cost in blood and treasure that is no longer sustainable.
2. There is no rhyme or reason yet to our targeting. Why Libya but not Syria? Why Mubarak but not Ahmadinejad? So far our choices are understandably predicated only on ease and cost — not strategic importance or the fact of large indigenous protests already in progress (as was true of Syria and Iran). At some point there needs to be a doctrine, if only for internal purposes.
3. Bush got congressional, but not U.N. approval for Iraq; Obama got U.N., but not congressional approval for Libya. Apparently, after Bush I and the Gulf War, it has been hard to get both (e.g., Clinton got neither when he started bombing in the Balkans).
4. Obama used minimal resources ($1 billion — cheap, to remove Gaddafi — over seven months) in Libya; but a country of 6 million people on the Mediterranean coast, adjacent to southern Europe, is not Saddam’s Baathist state of 26 million in the heart of the ancient caliphate that was in a de facto ongoing war for 12 years with the U.S. Thus “leading from behind” might work in Libya but not in a place like Iraq — as the eroding no-fly-zone strategy of the 1990s showed. Who knows what might work in Syria? Most care only to stay out these days.
5. Wartime Democratic presidents enjoy domestic advantages conservatives do not, whether in conventional or anti-terrorism wars. If Bush were president and bombing Libya, Harold Koh would be filing writs to stop it, not filing arguments that exempt such bombing from the War Powers Act. Ditto the entire Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols, which magically became orthodox around January 2009. When war crimes are defined as water-boarding three confessed terrorists rather than blowing up over 2,000 suspected terrorists (sometimes American citizens) and any collaterals in the wrong place at the wrong time, there are clearly advantages in a liberal commander in chief being immune from the anti-war hysteria. To Obama’s credit, he gauged correctly that the 2003–7 hysteria was mostly partisan, and would entirely vaporize when he flipped and continued the Bush-Cheney protocols. And it did on spec.
6. The difference in Obama’s approach to promoting change in the Middle East is the question of cost and investment. The United States has returned to a Clintonian fondness for exclusively bombing because it is relatively cheap (in the age of Predators especially) and does not involve boots on the ground — and can work well if there is a sizable indigenous uprising ongoing (something that was true in Iraq in 1991, but not 2003). I say “work” in the sense of removing a dictator who has a vulnerable nexus of command and control; but if Libya goes the Somalia route, even a Black Hawk Down incursion would probably be of no value.
7. Winning is the father of us all. Once the surge quieted Iraq, the war become page 20 news; Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan became vague memories, and Harry Reid and Barack Obama stopped their pronouncements of doom. Many of us had strong reservations about Libya (no congressional approval, who were the rebels anyway, why so drawn out a campaign, why invest the most resources only to lead from behind, why go after the minor threats of Qaddafi and Mubarak but ignore the real ones in Iran and Syria, etc.), but the removal of the thug Qaddafi is a success for Obama and the U.S. Whether it remains so depends on what happens in the next few months on the ground. Unfortunately, now things get more messy, not less.