The muddled politics of Libya

at 03:56 PM ET, 08/22/2011

The United States’ involvement in Libya began as a political controversy. But now that the country’s rebel uprising has apparently succeeded, the politics are largely absent.

And the truth is that it probably will have very little impact on the 2012 election.

The reason nobody is playing politics with Libya right now is because there is so much that has yet to play out, and basically everyone has an argument about how things either turned out well or could have turned out better.

President Obama, when he authorized airstrikes in Libya, earned criticism from both liberal Democrats and from Republicans trending toward a more isolationist foreign policy. There were also Republicans who wanted a more aggressive and involved foreign policy, believing that the rebels needed more help and that Moammar Gaddafi’s regime would have crumbled quickly.

Now that the rebels have all but overthrown Gaddafi, though, Obama is hardly declaring any kind of victory or vindication.

In remarks from his vacation at Martha’s Vineyard on Monday, Obama briefly recapped the U.S. and its allies’ involvement – stressing that it was not unilateral – but largely let the politics of the day fall by the wayside.

“In the face of this aggression, the international community took action,” Obama said. “An unprecedented coalition was formed.

“In the early days of this intervention, the United States provided the bulk of the firepower, and then our allies took over.”

In the end, though, it was just Obama defending his decision in very much the same terms he has before. The president stopped well short of taking credit for what the rebels were eventually able to do, instead saying that the move was to prevent large-scale massacres of the Libyan people.

Obama could have argued that his decision to authorize the strikes paved the way for the rebels to eventually take control of their own destiny, but with the situation so fluid, declaring some kind of political victory carries plenty of risk.

Critics, meanwhile, can either argue that the airstrikes weren’t necessary after all — because the Libyan people were capable of their own victory — or that Gaddafi was so weak that a more aggressive approach could have facilitated a faster conclusion to the conflict.

Tellingly, though, few of Obama’s critics were trying to play politics in the aftermath of Sunday’s big event.

Presidential candidates Rick Perry, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman all released pretty bland statements ignoring the political aspect of the events in Libya and stressing the path forward for the fledgling government.

Even Huntsman, who had been critical of Obama’s decision to use airstrikes, issued a measured response, calling himself “hopeful – as the whole world should be – that [Gaddafi’s] defeat is a step toward openness, democracy and human rights for a people who greatly deserve it.”

Rep. Michele Bachmann, who had also been critical of Obama’s decision, has yet to comment.

In fact, about the only Republicans who were critical of Obama in recent days have been hawkish Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who have very little skin in the political game right now.

In the end, it’s hard for anyone to take complete credit for having the right strategy in Libya, because it’s not clear which strategy led to the outcome we see today.

And given how unsettled everything is and how little the conflict is likely to matter in the 2012 election, it’s not clear it would even be worth the effort on behalf of Obama or any of his opponents.

In the end, even though the conflict started out as a political hot potato, the rebels’ victory in Libya is just the latest event in the so-called Arab Spring that probably means little to U.S. politics.

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