August 26, 2011

With Moammar Gaddafi still at large and an uncertain future ahead for the Libyan people, one hesitates to make categorical judgments about the Obama administration’s recent intervention. A few things, however, can be said.

The toppling of Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship is a big victory for the ongoing pan-Arab revolution. The political map of the Middle East is being torn up after four decades of stultifying, soul-draining dictatorship. Of the best-known dynasties — Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, the Husseins in Jordan, the Saudi royal family — four have fallen. Of those that remain, some may be wise and nimble enough to respond to popular demands. Those who don’t will ultimately fall.

Libya was no sideshow but a critical part of the regional evolution. Had Gaddafi conquered Benghazi, crushed the rebels and carried out his promise to kill every last opponent of the regime, it would have sent a terrible signal to others in the region. Instead, his fall encourages rulers and ruled alike to seek peaceful transitions, especially, one hopes, in Syria, where pressure on the Assad regime will surely grow. Even some of the conservative Gulf Arab states had backed the rebels in Libya; now they are lending their weight to the anti-Assad push.

This was a major triumph for the Atlantic alliance. For all its glaring weaknesses, NATO did save the people of Libya and kept alive the momentum of the Arab Spring. It also disproved the increasingly common notion that the world’s great democracies are in terminal decline. They are still powerful and capable of acting together when their interests and ideals are threatened. They toppled Gaddafi despite having tied at least one hand behind their own backs. Just imagine if they came with the full power of the United States.

Too bad they didn’t, but the destruction of Gaddafi’s regime is still a great accomplishment for the Obama administration and for the president personally. It’s a shame that some officials are playing down the U.S. role, absurdly trying to turn the “leading from behind” gaffe into some kind of Obama doctrine. In fact, the United States did not lead from behind.

By far the most important decision any world leader made in this affair was when President Obama decided that the world could not stand by and see the people of Benghazi massacred. That turned the tide. All praise to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron for being ahead of Obama in seeing the need for armed action — just as Margaret Thatcher was ahead of George H.W. Bush in seeing the need for action against Saddam Hussein in 1990. But only the United States had the weaponry to open a safe path for the air and ground war against Gaddafi’s forces. France and Britain alone could not have done the job without unacceptable risk to their forces, which were thin to begin with. In the early days American A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft were critical in pummeling Gaddafi’s armored vehicles. In the last days of the conflict, American surveillance allowed the rebels to pinpoint the positions of Gaddafi forces in and around Tripoli. American Predator drones prowled throughout the months of fighting.

The president and the secretary of state also carried out an adept diplomacy, garnering not only European but also, remarkably, Arab support, which in turn forced Russia and China to acquiesce. The cost was an inadequate U.N. resolution, but in the end it was probably worth it. Having such broad international, and especially Arab, support helped. Only the United States could have pulled this off. In an allegedly “post-American” world, it is remarkable how indispensable the United States remains.

The president deserves extra credit because his decision was politically risky. The foreign policy elite was almost unanimously opposed. Congressional Republicans and some GOP presidential candidates joined with antiwar Democrats, out of opportunism or conviction, reinforcing a public mood that was sour to begin with. It was not the Republican Party’s finest hour.

The administration did deserve criticism. The Libyan intervention will join the Kosovo campaign under the historical heading “Winning Ugly.” The president was slow to act. The arbitrary decision to stop flying the A-10s and AC-130s after only a few days may have prolonged the war by months, with thousands of needless Libyan deaths. Clearly the president and his advisers were spooked by public opinion, worried about committing the nation to yet another Middle East intervention and, in the midst of an economic crisis, looking to fight the war as cheaply as possible. Administration spinners who are now telling a gullible press corps what a brilliantly conceived operation this was from start to finish know what nonsense that is.

But what’s new? American interventions, large and small, are never pretty. American presidents are almost always slow to see the need for action; they worry about their political backsides and start looking for the exits as soon as they decide to act. Republican critics, especially those who served in the Reagan and Bush years, should look in the mirror. They might recall the handling of the intervention in Lebanon in 1982, the deliberate inaction in the early days of the Balkan slaughter in 1992, not to mention Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States almost never does these things well. But sometimes it succeeds nevertheless. This is one of those times.

Or at least one hopes. Plenty can still go wrong in a country governed for 40 years by a mad despot. The Obama administration is where the Bush administration was in November 2001 in Afghanistan and in April 2003 in Iraq. The dictator has fallen, but dangers abound.

Those experiences teach that failure to manage the transition can rapidly turn success into disaster. Presumably the president and his advisers know this. Yet the temptation to pocket the president’s “win” and run away from Libya as fast as possible will be great. Obama needs to resist it.

Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes a monthly column for The Post. A longer version of this essay appears in the Weekly Standard.