After hardly mentioning Libya for months, President Obama and his aides are now taking an understandable victory lap. With Tripoli having fallen to rebel forces on Aug. 21, after six months of war, the president's supporters are even suggesting that Operation Unified Protector, as the international intervention was formally known, offers a new model for the use of force: one where the U.S. acts at low cost to defend human rights by putting allies into the lead. An anonymous administration official dubbed this "leading from behind"—a term that has raised hackles on the right but that, some argue, has been vindicated in Libya.
In truth, it's too soon to tell. Recall how glorious the future looked in Afghanistan in December 2001. The Taliban had been toppled in two months, and the U.S. had brought about their downfall with a few hundred CIA officers and Special Operations Forces backed up by air power. This brought giddy predictions—which ignored the crucial role of the Northern Alliance—that precision munitions and a few eyes on the ground could work miracles.
Then reality set in, as we discovered—not for the first or last time—that it is much easier to topple a regime than to replace it. Smart bombs can destroy a dictator's army but they cannot build a democracy or even suppress an insurgency. That requires boots on the ground. We did not have enough in either Iraq or Afghanistan, and neither did our allies.
Now in Libya it appears there will be no foreign boots on the ground—no peacekeeping force from NATO, the United Nations or any other organization. The Transitional National Council will be left on its own to deal with the difficult task of ending the last-gasp resistance of Moammar Gadhafi's henchmen, securing government arsenals (which include chemical weapons and portable anti-aircraft missiles), and trying to establish rule of law.
The rebels have shown a fairly impressive ability to govern Benghazi, but running the entire country is a more difficult task. Whether they can carry it off successfully will determine history's judgment on Operation Unified Protector—and on America's role in Libya.
Mr. Obama tried with some success to keep the U.S. in the background. A senior NATO official tells me that of almost 21,000 total sorties flown by NATO aircraft, Europeans (primarily the British and French) flew 75% of them. The Europeans flew an even higher percentage (85%) of the 8,000 "strike" sorties—the ones that actually dropped munitions on 4,500 targets ranging from Gadhafi's tanks to his homes and headquarters. French and British special forces, along with Qatari counterparts, made another essential contribution by going to Libya to help train and arm the ragtag rebel forces. The U.S. sent some CIA operatives and diplomats but no uniformed personnel.
The Europeans also helped by providing the bases for the operation—in Italy, Greece, France and Spain—and by staffing the command-and-control nodes that ran NATO operations. (Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard, a Canadian Air Force officer, commanded Unified Protector, and 90% of his staff officers were European.) European navies provided the bulk of the resources that imposed a (selective) arms embargo: Out of 15 to 20 ships on station off the Libyan coast at any time, only one or two were American.
All of this sounds rather impressive, and it was—at least by NATO's (low) standards. But the American contribution, while small in absolute terms, was absolutely crucial. With B-2 stealth bombers leading the way as usual, the U.S. Air Force and Navy kicked off the campaign in March by dismantling Libyan air defenses. The Europeans would never have risked their aircraft over Libya otherwise. The U.S. thereupon pulled back its A-10s, F-16s and other strike aircraft, leaving the bulk of the attacks to the Europeans.
But the U.S. still provided armed Predators and other assets (including B-1 bombers) to take out key targets with great precision. Even more important, the U.S. provided intelligence from satellites and aircraft that could both watch enemy positions and intercept enemy communications, real-time targeting guidance in NATO "fusion" centers, JDAM kits to transform the existing stockpiles of European "dumb bombs" into precision munitions, and aerial refueling from KC-135 and KC-10 aircraft that allowed European fighter jets to keep flying. Without these American contributions, the operation would have ground to a halt.
Would Gadhafi's fall have come sooner if the U.S. had made a bigger contribution, especially with more strike aircraft? That seems likely, but how much sooner is not clear. Air power alone has never toppled any regime. Aircraft are most effective when employed in conjunction with ground forces—otherwise defenders can simply burrow into bunkers.
In Libya, because of the terms of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 (which excluded "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory"), the ground forces had to be provided by the rebels, who formed a new army from scratch in February and March. Even with more air power on call, it would have taken months to transform undisciplined and untrained fighters into a force capable of defeating Gadhafi's veteran security forces. That transformation, which might have been hastened if the U.S. had sent its own special forces to work with the rebels, finally reached critical mass in August.
Which brings us back to the post-conflict phase, which we are now entering even as scattered fighting persists. The Obama administration worked with European and Arab allies (particularly the Qataris) to help the Transitional National Council prepare for this eventuality. If the council succeeds, it will ensure Unified Protector's standing as a model military intervention.
But if it fails, and Libya devolves into anarchy or despotism, this operation will likely be remembered as a tactical triumph that didn't translate into strategic success. The outcome still hangs in the balance.
Mr. Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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