E.J. Dionne is upset President Obama isn’t getting applause for his Libya “success.” (I will leave for another day why those on the left who preached against any U.S. action are curiously quiet.) Why no ovations? For starters, it’s not clear there is success yet and it is far from clear that Obama was a positive influence. Moreover, while the Obama team and its spin squad would have us believe that this is a superior model for “regime change” ( foot-dragging, lack of congressional consultation and off-loading the heavy lifting to ill-prepared allies?), there is no sign Obama has the same sticking power and political courage to help Libya make the transition to a functioning state. At this point it is an open question whether “anarchy” will become the definitive adjective for the post-Gaddafi Libya.
Peter Feaver at Foreign Policy criticizes what he sees as the Obama administration’s “unseemly end-zone dance of celebration over the toppling of Qaddafi.” It does have the feel of “Mission Accomplished” doesn’t it?
For one thing, Obama’s leading from behind had to be modified and had considerable downsides:
1. The most recent progress happened because NATO shifted course and stepped up military operations, especially American military operations, as critics had been calling for. . . . The previous strategy of doing just a bit less than what was needed was not working and contributed to months of paralysis.
2. The operation took significantly longer than the administration expected, in part because a late entry and other operational choices hobbled early efforts. If the international coalition had joined the rebel cause a week earlier than they did (when rebel forces were initially pressing Tripoli), the Qaddafi regime might have collapsed within days or weeks rather than holding on for months. . . .
3. Because this operation has dragged on, the collapse of the Qaddafi regime is happening as the international coalition is itself running out of steam. . . . . What this means is that there is far less spare international capacity to deal with any problems that emerge in Libya than there would have been if we had reached this culmination point months ago, which is when the administration evidently expected it to be reached.
4. The strategic rationale by which Obama justified the Libya mission runs counter to the operational commitments he has made for the next phase. Obama invoked the “responsibility to protect” principle as the rationale for committing U.S. military forces and prestige to the Libya operation: if we had not acted, there would have been a bloodbath. He has consistently argued, however, that it is the responsibility of the Libyans to provide all of the necessary security to prevent a bloodbath after the fall of Qhaddafy [sic]. If the international community, and the United States in particular, had a responsibility to act in March to forestall a possible bloodbath that was not precipitated by U.S. action, why does Obama believe that the United States will have no responsibility to act in August or September if a bloodbath arises out of a power vacuum that our military action catalyzed? Which brings me to....
5. The real test of Obama’s Libya operation will be how events play out after Qaddafi is gone. If post-Qaddafi Libya quickly transitions to a stable, representative political order, then the messiness of the last five months will be forgiven and forgotten. If the Obama team’s planning for post-Qaddafi Libya is up to the task, that will go a long way to vindicating their approach. But as the George W. Bush administration ruefully knows, as hard as it is to topple a dictator, the really hard part is what comes after.
And that’s the rub in Libya, isn’t it? The prolonged agony of the Libyan people and the death toll over months and months are hardly selling points for the administration.
The Bush administration had the nerve and the flexibility to adjust to changing conditions and remain an active part of the transition to a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Over the objections of liberals, Bush maintained large fighting and peacekeeping forces in Iraq, spent political capital and taxpayers dollars, and was able to leave Iraq in better shape than he found it. In Libya the challenge is perhaps even greater, as Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations explains:
Obama, who’s determined to pull up stakes in Afghanistan in time for the election, hardly seems the type to do what is needed to prevent Libya from becoming a failed state. But let’s see. The death toll, the destruction, the extent of the Obama team’s commitment to Libya and, hence, the political future of Libya are as of now unknown.
In Libya, what we’re about to witness is a wholesale transition from one order — which was centered around one man, Moammar Qaddafi, and his tribe and the people around him — to an entirely new order based around a coalition government that established a foothold in another part of the country [Benghazi] and is now about to take over. That is going to be a dramatic, unprecedented development. Frankly, it’s going to be very precarious. No one is going to be sad Qaddafi is leaving, but at the same time, the challenges facing Libya in the transition are enormous. Just to talk about a peaceful transition, let alone a democratic one, is quite ambitious.