from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Obama and Libya: Hold the Triumphalism, Please

October 22, 2011

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After the death of Muammar al Gaddafi, Administration spokesmen and those journalists who pretty much take dictation from them have been triumphant. This was, they have said, final proof of the exquisite brilliance of Obama policy in Libya (despite the “howling” of critics, to quote David Ignatius).

I would hold off on the triumphalism, for the Obama approach had many flaws.

The limitations imposed on the use of American military power lengthened the Libyan internal conflict. The Transitional National Council estimated a total of twenty-five thousand dead and sixty thousand wounded. Had we acted faster and not restricted the American role, those numbers would be smaller—perhaps far smaller, and the damage to Libya’s infrastructure also smaller. And had we used more air power to end the war faster, in weeks instead of months, perhaps the Libyan regime’s arsenals, including the extremely dangerous MANPAD shoulder-launched missiles, could have been captured intact. Instead, stolen Libyan weaponry will present a threat for years to come.

Those limitations on the use of American power also shook NATO. NATO is an alliance always led by the United States, which is why its commander is always an American. When the United States backs away from leadership (the phrase “leading from behind” became famous during the Libya conflict), our allies question our broader commitment to NATO. They wonder how we will approach the next crisis and whether we will lead “from behind” or indeed not at all. These questions are asked not only by NATO allies but by others whose security is linked to our willingness to act. Arab interlocutors with whom I have spoken have said that the American approach in Libya shook their faith that we would ever protect them from Iran. (The Administration’s reaction to the Iranian terrorist plot that might have blown up a restaurant in downtown Washington will, of course, add to those doubts.)

Then there was the Administration’s handling of the War Powers Act. Hostilities in Libya required a firm stand: was the act constitutional or did it too greatly limit presidential power? The Administration refused to protect presidential powers and instead presented the nonsensical argument that what we saw in Libya were not hostilities at all.

Any administration would be claiming success for its policies after the demise of Gaddafi, but the Obama spokesmen appear to believe they have devised a brilliant formula here that eliminated all problems and achieved every goal at almost no cost. The record suggests that is wrong: it can be argued this excellent outcome might have been achieved with far less death and damage in Libya, and far less damage to the faith of friends and allies in our commitment to their security.