September 6, 2011

Mission Accomplished... does Libya count?

I wasn't planning to shout from the rooftops over the success of President Obama's smart-power strategy in Libya, though I had blogged early this year that Libya was an opportunity for him. Not a confounding challenge, like Iraq or Afghanistan, or Egypt or Syria, but nevertheless an opportunity to turn a fresh page, at least back to the limited-engagement days of Clinton and Bush (remember 41?). This may not have been a slam dunk, but let's at least give the President credit for a good rebound shot.

Six months ago, back when I first posted on this, lots of Republicans seemed to be goading the President into invading Libya. The disappointment was palpable when he threw in with our NATO allies and let them do most of the work -- with no ground invasion, and with limited firepower after the first days of giving the rebels a head start. And in the end, it's been estimated that the entire Libya engagement cost Washington less than $1 billion -- no casualties, no PTSD -- and far less than the cost of one day in Iraq after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" stunt.

Later, the Republicans' spent blood lust turned into anger that the imperial imperialist (Obama) needed to invoke the War Powers Act, even though President Bush (43) had invaded Iraq with only a vague contingency resolution from Congress, and in Libya no U.S. ground forces were committed. A few of my Republican friends have suddenly informed me they never even liked Bush's whole "democracy-building" agenda. Oh.

It's possible that Qaddafi has now been driven -- literally -- out of Libya and into neighboring Niger. The road ahead will not be easy for Libya, but it has much going for it. Lessons that were learned or re-learned the hard way in Iraq and Afghanistan will be applied to a far less complex situation. The United States can no longer afford to intervene in every conflict or struggle for freedom around the world, thanks in large part to the diplomatic failures and military spending spree of the previous administration. (Don't forget, TARP was necessitated while George W. Bush was still President, and the trillions of dollars spent on Iraq were mostly his decision, too.)

Al Qaeda may already be making inroads in Libya, I've been warned. Well, good luck to them, since first Osama and now Al Qaeda's number-two have both been eliminated. Al Qaeda remains a threat, but their biggest opportunity (and Iran's, too) came when Bush invaded Iraq. The post-Qaddafi tribal bloodbath being predicted is a real possibility, but we didn't unleash the tensions, we answered the call for popular rule AFTER the bulk of Libya's population rose up. And I predict the landing will be much lighter than in Iraq.

Qaddafi was never an easy character to handle, even before the latest President Bush reopened diplomatic relations and opened the spigots of big business. Though Qaddafi presumably gave up his less-than-world-class weapons of mass destruction, he remained a kingpin of terrorism and small-arms proliferation in Africa and beyond. But having cut a deal with his regime, the United States was limited in what it could do about it. Enter Barack Obama, cue the Arab Spring, and voila -- opportunity. In effect, and by comparison to other recent Mideast ventures, Muammar Qaddafi just went away. 

Achieving Qaddafi's departure involved terrible sacrifice and bold heroism by ordinary Libyans, and security in the region will not be assured for some time. But, for less than $1 billion, the United States has one mid-level success under its belt, along with the good will of our allies for playing well with others. Might that be helpful this month when the United Nations General Assembly reconvenes with the leaders of over 100 member states, including when President Obama needs to devote valuable time to peeling away votes from the resolution to recognize a Palestinian state? Will it help in convincing more European and Arab nations to take a public stand against Iran's nuclear intentions?

Call me naive (and all those other names), but I think it has, and it will.

[Post-mortem, October 24, 2011: To their credit, some Republican foreign policy leaders, including Senator John McCain, have seemed content with the results in Libya and believe that support for U.S. national interest should not depend upon political party.]

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