Like the U.S. military manhunt for Saddam Hussein, the search for the fugitive dictator Moammar Gaddafi took seven months. He finally popped up, like his Iraqi counterpart, from an inglorious hiding place and is now dead.
The similarities end there.
How President Obama helped bring about the end of a long-standing American antagonist in Libya captures in microcosm the vast difference in the way he and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have employed diplomacy and military power against their declared enemies.
Both approaches resulted in the removal of longtime U.S. nemeses who had enjoyed a few years in Washington’s favor.
But Bush’s invasion cost nearly $1 trillion and more than 4,400 American lives, while Obama’s more limited intervention highlighted a national security strategy that emphasizes global burden-sharing, and secretive tactics and technologies whose legality has been questioned. The NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi’s convoy Thursday included a missile launched from a U.S. drone aircraft.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” Obama said Thursday in a brief Rose Garden appearance.
Obama’s technocratic approach to governing has served him far better in foreign policy, where facts, expert appraisal and intelligence often trump ideology, than it has in domestic politics. At a time of economic uncertainty at home, the achievements abroad, including the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, have not translated into political popularity.
Moreover, his foreign policy approach has made him critics on the right, who say his one-of-the-gang approach has diminished America’s stature in the world; and on the left, who view his embrace of drone strikes as a violation of his pledge to restore the rule of law to national security.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, described Obama’s strategy as one that “uses U.S. military power in a more focused way with smaller footprints, leveraging our very unique capabilities.”
“When we took office, you had an approach of very large U.S. military footprints in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the official said. “We’ve moved toward a far more targeted approach that leverages U.S. military capabilities rather than large forces overseas.”
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Obama has demonstrated a calculated ruthlessness in waging war against al-Qaeda, killing bin Laden, U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and numerous other foot soldiers through special operations and drone strikes.
He has expanded that often-unseen war, improvising at times to explain the legal rationale behind the operations or, at other times, declining to acknowledge the U.S. role at all.
After months of Republican criticism that his leadership has been limp and late in Libya and in the other uprisings of the Arab Spring, Obama asserted Thursday that Gaddafi’s demise “comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world.”
“We’ve taken out al-Qaeda leaders, and we’ve put them on the path to defeat,” he said. “We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”
Republicans have called his methodical approach a sign of foreign policy indecision and inexperience.
Obama waited more than a week after Libya’s crackdown against the anti-government movement began in February to comment on the insurrection and then refused to utter Gaddafi’s name or call for his removal. He eventually did so in a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for Gaddafi’s ouster.
Obama’s decision to allow European allies to take the lead in lobbying for military intervention was based, in large part, on his reading of the poor U.S. image in the Arab Middle East.
Working with NATO and Arab allies, along with a swelling armed Libyan force on the ground, Obama ruled out ground troops early. Ultimately, Obama took out Gaddafi by proxy, as Libyan forces routed the dictator’s protectors and took full control of the country.
“You have won your revolution,” Obama told the Libyan people Thursday.
But Republicans continue to criticize the approach despite the results.
It was telling on Thursday that some congressional Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), considered a possible vice presidential choice, credited the French and British leadership for Gaddafi’s death, but not Obama.
“It’s important to ask — whether it’s that senator or another one, or others who are observing this — what action, what alternative action they’re suggesting,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday.
“Were they suggesting U.S. troops on the ground? Were they suggesting unilateral action by the United States of America, using force? Obviously those were options that were assessed here at the White House. The president chose a different path,” Carney said.
Obama’s Libya policy, though, put him at odds with Congress, including with members of his own party. He did not seek congressional approval for the intervention, and he argued that the War Powers Act did not apply, saying the U.S. role providing support and intelligence after the initial airstrikes did not amount to hostilities.
Whether that argument will serve as a precedent for future U.S. military interventions is unclear. Senior administration officials say that the nature of Libya’s revolution is unique and that Obama’s argument for intervention against Gaddafi does not apply in Syria, Bahrain and other countries facing internal revolt.
The sputtering U.S. economy has helped pushed down Obama’s approval ratings since the Libyan operation began, and he may be at the weakest point politically of his presidency as the 2012 campaign gathers momentum.
Even the bump in his approval rating after bin Laden’s killing lasted only a matter of weeks, and his rivals predict little difference with Gaddafi’s death.
“The election is much more about Americans losing their jobs than about Gaddafi losing his head,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster whose firm is working for the presidential campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.
Carney and other White House advisers declined to discuss the political implications of Gaddafi’s death Thursday, although some grumbled privately about the pointed Republican praise for European governments but not the United States.
“The president has been able to build a record that speaks for itself,” the senior administration official said.
Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.