The apparent downfall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi will be an enormous foreign policy victory and vindication for US President Barack Obama.
His campaign of a limited military engagement in Libya, along with NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council states, was never popular. From the outset it was attacked on all sides as either too much or too little, misguided and unlikely to succeed. It was even said that the intervention would cost more lives in Libya than it would save and harm rather than promote the interests of the United States.
Now it seems certain that Obama can justifiably claim to have made the right decision. He can add Qaddafi’s scalp to that of slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Unless Libya degenerates into total anarchy over the next 12 months, Obama will be virtually untouchable on foreign policy issues in the upcoming election campaign, though economic issues may prove decisive.
The limited engagement in Libya also looks like powerful prima facie evidence that Obama’s approach of emphasizing multilateral alliances, proceeding cautiously and balancing interests with values produces better results than the aggressive and ideological unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration.
The Libya policy was reluctantly adopted by the Obama administration, and was led from the outset by the United Kingdom and France. In the weeks leading up to its announcement, in a phone call with me, a senior British official expressed exasperation at American hesitation. But when it looked like Qaddafi’s forces had a clear path to Benghazi to crush the rebellion, that hesitation ended.
The most important and immediate goal of the strategy was to prevent a decisive Qaddafi victory, which was immediately accomplished. A secondary aim was to aid the rebels by chipping away at the heavy weaponry and military infrastructure that was the main source of power for the regime.
As the Libyan conflict settled into a protracted war of attrition, what sometimes appeared to be a stalemate in fact produced blow after blow to Qaddafi’s military strength and strategic position. Virtually every development left the Libyan leader weaker and the Benghazi-based opposition stronger. In recent weeks the writing was increasingly on the wall.
The greatest virtue of this strategy is that, as it averted an unacceptable outcome and promoted a preferable one, it did not amount to a decisive outside intervention in Libyan affairs. It left the result of the conflict and the future of Libya almost entirely in Libyan hands. This has been central to its success. With no boots on the ground, coalition intervention tipped the scales in favor of the rebels but did not seek to control or co-opt them. This helped ensure the intervention was not widely seen as a neocolonial bid in the Arab world, and it did not taint the rebellion as a tool of Western influence, as many had feared it would.
However, this great virtue is also a considerable vulnerability. One of Obama’s most important foreign policy successes—as it now seems—will be dependent on the ability of the new Libyan government to restore order, build consensus, avoid vengeance and contain simmering differences in Libya. It is especially important to reconcile the Qaddafa and Warfala tribes to the new order.
Handwringing by those warning of grim scenarios before the Libyan revolutionaries have even completed securing control of the capital is both premature and unfair. Lots of things could go wrong, but so far most things are going as well as can be expected. But it is true that the new Libyan government’s greatest challenges lie ahead.
NATO can now end its air campaign, and calls for a Western or United Nations “stabilization force” under current circumstances could not be more misguided. There has never been any appetite in Libya or the West for a direct intervention on the ground.
Moreover, there is no reason to think that having accomplished regime change with Western support, the new government won’t be able to create a stable, and indeed vastly improved, system.
There is much the West can do in terms of aid and support, and obviously there is a powerful interest in making sure that the success in getting rid of Qaddafi extends itself to success in building a stable and better Libya. The limited engagement placed the West clearly on the right side of history in this case, and goes a long way to dispelling the idea that these powers are opposed to change in the Arab world.
Many political leaders staked a great deal on the success of the limited engagement. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France became personally identified with it more than anyone else. The Qatari government, which participated in the air engagement and funded the rebels, took a huge risk that has paid off handsomely.
But with Obama facing a difficult reelection in November 2012, no other leader outside of Libya seems to have greater stakes in a successful development of a new government in Tripoli.