It appears that Muammar Gaddafi’s iron grip has completely collapsed. If we can’t say that his regime is no more just yet, we will be able to do so very soon.
This raises the question: Does Gaddafi’s removal with no American casualties vindicate Barack Obama’s Libyan war?
Maybe. Maybe not.
I opposed the Libyan intervention, but even the war’s opponents must admit that history may look favorably upon Obama’s decision.
The president’s case is fairly strong at this early point. He can say his decision to act may have averted a humanitarian catastrophe: When Obama authorized intervention in Libya, Gaddafi’s forces were on the outskirts of Benghazi, and Gaddafi had threatened to show “no mercy” to the city’s population.
Who knows how many people would have been killed without American and NATO intervention? Maybe very few, limited to those actively taking up arms against the regime. Maybe tens of thousands or more. It’s impossible to say.
In six months, without putting American forces on the ground, America and NATO airpower helped the Libyan rebels overthrow Gaddafi. Not a single American was killed during the operation.
Not a bad narrative for the president.
But those praising Obama’s strategy should be careful: history’s verdict is not yet in.
Let us first dismiss the unserious criticisms of the intervention that amount to little more than conservative carping. The cost of the operation was not prohibitive, even at a time of great fiscal constraint. America’s fiscal problems lie almost entirely with reforming its entitlement programs — Libya is utterly irrelevant to that conversation.
Some critics may also note that the president promised that America’s role in operation would last days, not weeks. It took months. There is legitimate criticism to be made here of the president’s naïveté about Europe’s capacity (or lack thereof) to handle such an operation without American support. But such criticism will merit a very small footnote in history’s recounting of the conflict.
There is also a legitimate criticism that if Obama was going to act, he should have done so sooner, when rebel forces were on the move at the beginning of March. That he acted at the very last moment, when their back was against the wall, may have made the conflict more protracted. But history will dismiss this too as a small footnote in the grand scheme of things.
The real question is what happens now in post-Gaddafi Libya. It was very clear from the beginning that the Obama administration had very little insight into who was leading the rebellion against Gaddafi. Even at this late date, it is unclear what post-Gaddafi Libya will look like.
There are certainly liberal democratic elements among the rebels. But it is far from clear they will win the day. And here in lies perhaps the key metric to whether history will look kindly upon Obama’s decision. If an Islamist government that America and NATO are ultimately credited with midwifing takes over, especially one that is friendly to terrorist elements, then Obama’s decision to act in Libya may not be treated so well by history.
Gaddafi is an evil lunatic who has American blood on his hands. But by the time of the Libyan operation, he was no threat to America — indeed, he was an enemy to Islamist terrorists. So if by helping the rebels overthrow him, we get a Libyan government unfriendly to American interests and friendly to America’s enemies, then history will certainly not look kindly upon America’s decision to intervene.
While that may be the key metric, it isn’t the only variable still in play. Obama was said to have been reluctant to launch the Libyan intervention because he didn’t want to enmesh America in a third war against a Muslim-majority nation. What if by launching our action in Libya, a country with almost no American interests at stake, it made Obama less likely to take action against Iran to forestall its nuclear program, if necessary? That too could tilt the scales against the Libyan intervention depending how the Iranian story plays out.
And how would have Obama acted toward Syria had he not been so involved in Libya? Would America have taken a harder line that would have stopped the bloodshed there and put greater pressure on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to leave? Syria is certainly far more strategically important to the U.S than Libya.
(In fairness, the argument can also go the other way. It is conceivable that Assad will be more willing to leave after seeing Gaddafi deposed. After all, Gaddafi willingly gave up his WMD programs after seeing America depose Saddam Hussein in 2003.)
All of this, of course, leaves aside the precedent and principal that has been set by the Libyan operation. But that is a matter for another column.
The point is that what we should make of the Libyan intervention is far from clear at this early stage. History will likely look kindly upon Obama’s decision, even if it criticizes elements of it, if post-Gaddafi Libya is run by a government that is democratic — or at the very least doesn’t support terrorist elements and is cooperative with the West.
If it turns out, as is conceivable, that we aided into power a terrorist-supporting Islamist regime, or if Libya breaks out into civil war, history may not look upon the decision to intervene as kindly as many commentators think it will in the immediate aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall.
History’s judgment, however, may take years, not months.