international analysis and commentary

Obama’s victory lap in Libya: caution warranted

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As Libyan rebels stormed the compound of Colonel Muammar Gheddafi in Tripoli, his 42-year-old regime seemingly coming to an end, some in the United States considered it a vindication for President Barack Obama’s strategy of “leading from behind,” and of NATO’s air-only, no-boots-on-the-ground mission.

The more guarded approach by Washington and its NATO allies provided the rebels with military and logistical support while allowing them to own the fight. The images of them entering the capital, flying the old, pre-Gheddafi tricolor flag and climbing atop the Colonel’s favorite statue of a fist crushing an American warplane, are bound to play much better with audiences in Libya and across the region than those, infamous, of American soldiers pulling down Saddam Hussein’s statue during the invasion of Baghdad in 2003.

Nevertheless, few people in the United States appear to be willing to give President Obama any credit for how things turned out. The news of the toppling of the Gheddafi regime was received cautiously in Washington, with a mix of relief and skepticism and only moderate celebration, despite the long, mostly hostile relationship between a string of US presidents and the Libyan dictator (to cite just two examples: the strike on Libya ordered by President Ronald Reagan in April 1986 in retaliation for a Libyan-organized terrorist attack on a German nightclub; and the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which took down a Pan Am aircraft flying over Scotland and killed 270 people).

The underwhelming political response to developments on the ground stems from several factors: the enduring economic crisis has the full attention of US voters, leaving little room for debate on issues such as foreign policy; the situation in Libya remains difficult, making it hard to predict how smooth the transition to a post-Gheddafi world will be; the GOP nomination process, already in full swing, politicizes all issues, requiring candidates to take advantage of each and any opportunity to differentiate themselves from one another and, most importantly, from the President. Additionally, the US role in Libya has been controversial from the start and the rebels’ arrival in Tripoli does not seem to have bridged the gap between the various positions. Finally, it’s worth remembering that no matter how successful Obama’s more modest, more multilateral foreign policy may be (and cheaper since it leans on allies), Americans are not accustomed to “leading from behind” and they appear uncomfortable in this new role.

 

In recent remarks, President Obama struck a hopeful tone, but was careful not to display a “mission accomplished” type of attitude. “[T]his much is clear: The Gheddafi regime is coming to an end, and the future of Libya is in the hands of its people,” he said while acknowledging that “the situation is still very fluid,” and that “there remains a degree of uncertainty.”

In Congress, both Democratic and Republican leaders were mostly silent on the events.

 

Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, was among the few to comment: “The situation in Libya is still fluid and the potential for violence is not over. But as we approach a post-Gheddafi era, the international community will look to the leaders of the opposition to implement a peaceful transition to democracy.” House Democrats, for the most part, refrained from statements. The decision of the White House in late March to authorize the use of force in Libya without seeking Congressional approval irked many of them. Some in the more progressive circles of the party, for example Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, had even attempted to pass a bill that would have cut all funding for the mission. The snub is not forgiven just because Gheddafi might be gone.

 

Solving the Libya puzzle has not been easier for Republicans, whose response was just as muted. During the spring, when the country debated whether or not the kind of military engagement chosen by President Obama was the most appropriate (with NATO in the lead and the US playing more of a supporting role), the GOP split into two opposing camps. Some called for a more aggressive intervention and others disagreed with the mission altogether, citing that Libya was not in the country’s immediate national security interest and that, given the financial crisis, it was a waste of money.

The split remains. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham welcomed the rebels’ arrival in Tripoli but complained that progress had been too slow due “to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower.”

GOP presidential hopefuls Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann, instead, reiterated their opposition to the mission, which Huntsman called “not core to our national security interest.” This is a peculiar position for Republicans, who traditionally like to appear strong on military issues, and offers a sneak peek of the kind of American foreign policy we might see if Obama fails in his reelection bid next year and one of the more isolationist Republicans takes over the White House.

The rest of the contenders for the GOP nomination, from Mitt Romney to Rick Perry, released only brief statements, which did not mention President Obama at all.

On the tail of Osama bin Laden’s assassination by US Special Forces, Libya comes as yet another success for President Obama’s foreign policy. Yet, because of his preference for a multilateral approach, because of the difficulty of reading the Libyan situation even now that Gheddafi might be out of the picture, and because the economy is the paramount concern in the minds of American voters, it is unlikely that the President will reap great benefits from it.