The apparent defeat of Muammah Gaddafi‘s loyalist forces by a Libyan rebel alliance supported by NATO is a stunning success for the United States, NATO and most of all President Obama. Unfortunately he’s getting little of the credit he deserves.
Obama took the politically risky decision to involve a war-weary America in actively supporting a populist Libyan rebellion that otherwise would have been crushed by the better trained and equipped loyalist forces of Gaddafi. In this he received tepid support from congressional Democrats, wary of another costly commitment, and outright hostility (surprise! surprise!) from a GOP that was all over the place on the issue of whether to intervene. There was the Michelle Bachmann (cuckoo’s) wing of the party who opposed any involvement, apparently content to see the rebels crushed and Gaddafi, the long ruling tyrant, maintain his reign. At the other extreme we had the two grand interventionists, Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who don’t see a Middle East country they don’t want to invade.
Obama developed a strategy that acknowledged the political realities while nevertheless pursuing the right course. He directed the United States military to provide enough airpower in the initial stages (the degradation of Libya’s air defence network, pummelling Libyan armour and artillery) to enable the NATO allies, ably led by the British and French, to assume the role of supporting the rebels with training, intelligence and air support. Of equal importance, his Secretary of State launched a diplomatic offensive in which she worked along with our allies to successfully marshal international support, both material and moral, for the rebels, including within the Arab world.
Although it came to be derided as the “lead from behind” strategy (a notion which Robert Kagan in Sunday’s Washington Post debunks), it clearly worked. At minimal cost to the US and NATO, we engineered a huge victory for what we all hope will turn out to be democratic forces in Libya. The real beauty of it, however, is that the victory belonged, first and foremost, to the Libyan people who shed all of the blood, and who fought with incredible courage and determination in the face of a ruthless and professionally armed and equipped enemy. The rebels’ ace, however, was the steady, low key, but ultimately devastatingly effective support from the British, French, Qataris, Americans and others, both in and outside of NATO. The fact that it is Libyans themselves, who won this victory on the ground whilst the allied support was mostly low-level, is a crucial element that the likes of McCain and Graham seem incapable of comprehending.
It isn’t over by any means and as Kagan points out it would be foolish to assume that we can pack our marbles and go home when so much needs to be done to help the forces of democracy to succeed in Libya. And we have no idea at this stage how that effort will turn out.
But for now, Obama’s performance warrants applause not brickbats.