On Libya, Democrats debate whether it is mission accomplished

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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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.

Other GOP-aligned foreign-policy commentators, including Stanley Kurtz at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, say a Libyan success will unfortunately boost the clout of international lawyers and their allied organizations, such as the United Nations. The president and his advisers have repeatedly argued the intervention is justified because it has been approved by the United Nations and the Arab League, and they’re using that approval to boost the lawyers’ open-ended claim that international organizations have a “responsibility to protect” victimized populations in countries around the world, Kurtz wrote in a posting at National Review’s website.

Kurtz’s fear is Stewart’s hope. The intervention “rescues an international norm that the U.N. had endorsed, but had rarely acted on, which is the responsibility to protect” victimized peoples, Stewart said. “If this [intervention] is successful, the credibility of United Nation’s Security Council will emerge stronger, and it will help justify the administration’s placing of its faith in that institution,” he said.

However, the mission is not yet accomplished, Stewart argues. The international coalition is already fracturing as China, Russia and some Arab countries declare their opposition to the use of airpower, while the promised contributions from Arab countries have yet to appear, he said. “The crunch time will come if airstrikes are not enough to turn the tide… and arming the rebel forces is insufficient, and the only way to meet the goals of protecting civilians is inserting combat troops,” he said. “That is obviously a crisis,” he said.

The public may accept a long standoff, countered Katulis. Voters “want to see progress, but as long as things seem to be going well, as we’ve seen in wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, you could have a very prolonged engagement and maintain public support,” he said.

“From a world point of view, and from an American point of view, it is going well,” said Korb. “You have legitimacy from the United Nations and the Arab League, and you have contributions from other countries, so it doesn’t look like another U.S. invasion of an Arab country, and you’ve stopped the killing,” he said. U.S. counter-terror forces can prevent a Libyan-sponsored terror attack, Gaddafi is trapped and he may quit, he said. “Gaddafi is in a position where he can’t win…[why should] he hang on in the face of a blockade and an embargo?”

Gaddafi may protest and complain, but it won’t have any impact on the 2012 election, said Korb, because U.S. policy will be to “just ignore him.” When November 2012 rolls around, he said, “the American people will not vote on whether Gaddafi is in or out.”

(See also: Libyan war rattles Democratic political strategists in lead up to 2012 presidential election)