On Libya, Democrats debate whether it is mission accomplished

Some Democratic advocates are already touting President Barack Obama’s Libyan intervention as a success, but others, including Democratic foreign-policy gurus, worry that a continued stand-off will damage the president’s polls and wreck efforts to boost the role of transnational organizations, such as the United Nations.

“We’ve accomplished what we needed,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Democratic-affiliated Center for American Progress (CAP). The killing has been halted, no U.S. ground troops are committed, and the mission is supported by the United Nations and the Arab League, so Obama won’t face a political backlash at home, he said. “Politically, he’s golden,” Korb said.

Others were more cautious in their endorsements. Reports from Libya “are positive about what we have done, and they are certainly are positive in terms of the coalition we have put together,” Democratic Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin declared in a Wednesday press conference. Many other Democratic legislators have declined to comment, and some on the left have openly opposed the intervention.

Some Democrat-affiliated foreign policy professionals are nervous. “The outcome of this intervention, its success or failure, and the degree to which it can be accomplished quickly and cheaply, will have a huge impact of both parties’ willingness to endorse or contemplate intervention in the future,” said Stewart Patrick, the director of the program on global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The future of liberal interventionism is definitely at stake,” said Smith, whose global governance program is intended to promote U.S. reliance on international organizations, such as the United Nations and the Arab League.

The intervention’s success “depends on how well our partners in France, Britain, our NATO allies and in the Arab world pick up the slack” said Brian Katulis, a foreign-policy professional at Korb’s CAP. The intervention, he said, “is going to be the ultimate test” of the Democratic preference for foreign interventions conducted via international organizations, in contrast to the GOP’s preference for U.S.-led operations in support of the nation’s self-interest.

The intervention has already split GOP legislators, most of whom are already maneuvering for advantage in the 2012 election. Legislators, such as Speaker John Boehner, say they are displeased with the White House’s limited consultation prior to committing U.S. airpower, but have not actually opposed the intervention. This stance will help them openly oppose the intervention if the public’s initial support drops.

GOP-aligned foreign policy experts are also split. Some, such as Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute, say the intervention can help the United States by accelerating the painful but beneficial emergence of democratic governments in the region. Others, such as Michael Ledeen, argue that the Libyan mission may distract the White House from supporting popular uprisings against the Iranian and Syrian autocracies that have attacked U.S. interests and killed U.S. soldiers in many countries since the 1980s. “Libya is a skirmish… [so] lets do that and be done with it, and focus on the big battles in Damascus and Tehran,” he said. “Those battles don’t requires armies, you don’t have to drop bombs, or give arms to rebels, all you have to do is support the democratic oppositions,” he said. The president’s growing emphasis on democracy in the region, he said, may even spur him to aggressively promote democracy in Iran and Syria. “I’m not optimistic,” he added.