President Obama, when he first announced the United States’ intervention in the Libyan revolution, was assailed from all sides for his war plan.
Five months ago, both Democrats and Republicans were offering up pointed criticisms for just about every aspect of Obama’s decision.
Whatever Obama did, there were large numbers of both Republicans and Democrats quite willing to loudly second-guess him.
Including Representative Dennis Kucinich (a Democrat), who became the first member of Congress to call for President Obama to be impeached over the Libyan war.
These criticisms were often contradictory (coming from the same people, at times), and were scathing and absolutely relentless: Obama had waited too long, Obama had moved too quickly, Obama should have gotten Congress’ approval, Obama shouldn’t have gotten the U.N.’s approval, America should just invade in a land war, America should just drop a bomb on Ghaddafi and be done with it, the rebels were in reality Al Qaeda, why are we intervening in Libya and not elsewhere in the Arab Spring, America can’t afford another war, air power alone never wins wars, America will be forced to put “boots on the ground” whether we like it or not, America should be leading the war, Obama is “leading from behind,” we’re letting the French take control (?!?), Obama is kowtowing to the Arab League, another war in a Muslim country will just serve to inflame the region, what about the War Powers Act, we’re going to wind up occupying Libya no matter what happens, the “ragtag” rebels will never win, the best the rebels can hope for will be a stalemate, Libya will end up partitioned with Ghaddafi holding on to the west of the country, Ghaddafi will unleash international terrorists against us, Obama didn’t come home from South America when it began, Obama is “dithering,” Obama didn’t explain to the American public what was going on, and (an old favourite) America will end up in a quagmire.
Back at the beginning of the war, Salon ran an amusing flowchart to track the Republican complaints, which isn’t all that far from the reality Obama faced at the time (although the chart is admittedly partisan, because it doesn’t address the criticism directed towards the president from his own party).
When Obama first announced his decision to join with N.A.T.O. to intervene in Libya, I wrote an article titled “Obama’s Libyan Gamble” which explored what the American military strategy for Libya was going to be. This gamble has now proved successful for the president. At the time, I concluded:
“If it works out reasonably well, this could become a model for American involvement in future flareups. If a ruthless tyrant was massacring his own people, then regional military coalitions would be free to call for American action. America, as everyone knows, is very, very good at executing the initial phases of a war. Iraq proved that.
But America, also as everyone should have figured out, is also not that good at getting out of such wars. Iraq — once again — proves this, too. But if our new model is to limit our major involvement to the opening phases of war, then the responsibility for solving these regional problems would fall to regional organisations with much bigger vested interests in the outcome than the United States.
Of course, this isn’t a perfect answer because sometimes regional alliances strong enough to bear this responsibility simply don’t exist. Obama’s Libyan strategy has yet to play out, and it’s impossible at this juncture to see what will happen next. Obama’s gamble that America can join in the initial phase of a war and then extricate itself quickly is one of those ideas which sound really good on paper, before reality sinks in when they’re actually attempted.
Other presidents have had equally cheerful predictions about the length of American military involvement, which later proved to be embarrassingly shortsighted. But, I have to admit, that if the gamble pays off — if America can prove to the rest of the world that it can lead when asked, but also relinquish control when we’re no longer needed — it could bear fruit in future conflicts of this nature. If it works, people might start speaking of Obama’s gamble as the Obama Doctrine.”
Looking back, I have to admit that I overstated the case. Barack Obama is anything but “doctrinaire,” on pretty much any subject. The Libyan intervention was tailored to a unique situation that may indeed never arise again. The set of circumstances in Libya was (and is) different than in other hotspots in the world right now (such as Syria), making it unlikely that Obama will use the Libyan battle plan again any time soon. So calling it the “Obama Doctrine” was a bit of a stretch, I suppose.
But it cannot be denied that the positive outcome in Libya has validated the way Obama sent America into this conflict. Sure, in the future, the whole Libyan Revolution could become sidetracked in any number of ways — just because they’ve taken Tripoli (and even if they soon capture Ghaddafi), it doesn’t mean that they’re going to successfully make the transition to a modern democratic state. There simply are no guarantees of this type in the real world.
But that doesn’t preclude us from examining the military strategy in its own light, especially when held up against our interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Because the news from Tripoli is so uplifting right now, in other words, it is hard to step back and examine the bigger picture of what America’s efforts in Libya may mean for our future involvement in other wars of this nature which may flare up. But it’s worth the exercise.
By just about any measure, America’s involvement in Libya has been less burdensome to the United States than the last two wars we’ve fought. For example, six months into Iraq (the same time period that Libya took), 289 American troops had been killed (according to icasualties.org).
In addition, 53 coalition troops had died. Six months after N.A.T.O. began air raids on Libya, a total of zero American troops have died, and an additional zero coalition troops have died. Hundreds of American servicemen and servicewomen are still alive today, because we did not launch a land invasion of Libya.
It was pointed out just after we began attacking Libya — with alarm — that American involvement might cost upwards of one billion dollars. I haven’t seen any strict accounting of the war yet, but assuming the estimate was true, it absolutely pales in comparison to the hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars (upwards of over a trillion dollars by most estimates) we have so far spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is several orders of magnitude of difference, right there.
Our military involvement in Libya was requested by the rebels. This is an important fact which many gloss over. We were not invited in to Afghanistan or Iraq, by any group. Even more important, we never actually “went in” to Libya (at least as the phrase refers to troops on the ground), so we don’t have to now “get out” of the country.
10 years on, we still have tens of thousands of soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called “Pottery Barn” rule (“you broke it, you own it”) simply did not apply in Libya, meaning America is not left holding the bag when it comes to the nation-building phase. We can help out, if needed and requested, but the Libyans will be financing their own reconstruction with their abundant petrodollars.
Our international coalition on Libya actually shared the burden with America, as planned. The coalition bore the costs and responsibility for a large part of the mission, instead of mostly being window-dressing for an American army. In fact, this could be the most important comparison of them all, when we look back at the lessons of Libya. Maybe we don’t always have to shoulder almost the entire burden of these sorts of wars, in the future. Maybe the “Obama Strategy” will actually become an important military tool for future presidents to use on the international stage, when circumstances allow.
Today, President Obama gave a short address on the Libyan situation. At the end, he spoke directly to the Libyan people themselves:
Your courage and character have been unbreakable in the face of a tyrant. An ocean divides us, but we are joined in the basic human longing for freedom, for justice and for dignity. Your revolution is your own, and your sacrifices have been extraordinary. Now, the Libya that you deserve is within your reach.
The most important takeaway line from this was: “Your revolution is your own.” This simply could not be said of what we did in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
The American involvement in Libya was not perfect, but then no war effort can truly claim that distinction. The outcome may not be perfect, either. There are still plenty of valid points of criticism to be made. President Obama’s critics will doubtlessly bring up the situation in Syria, Yemen, or Bahrain to make the point that the Obama’s Libya strategy is not being used elsewhere, or even that it cannot successfully be used elsewhere.
Calling it the “Obama Doctrine” is likely a step too far, I fully admit. It is true that Obama pushed the boundaries of the War Powers Act further than any previous president, but virtually all presidents (of both parties) have pushed these boundaries ever since the Act was passed (and until either Congress or an Oval Office occupant pushes it to the Supreme Court, the constitutionality of the Act itself will have to remain an open question). Obama may have moved too slowly for some at the war’s onset, but he also moved too quickly for others. Finally, there are no guarantees that the rebels will form a new Libyan government to America’s liking.
Even with all those caveats, however, Obama deserves a victory lap at this point. At the heart of Obama’s war plan for Libya was an enormous gamble that could have failed in any number of ways. It didn’t. America successfully cleared the skies of Libya, and then “within days, not weeks” we bowed out of the lead role in the fight. The French, the British, and the rest of N.A.T.O. stepped up to the plate and performed admirably well. The American military continued in a support role — exactly as Obama told us would happen — and the outcome, at this point in time, has to be judged a clear success.
Plus, Barack Obama is now — together with the leaders of France, Britain, and the United Nations — being hailed as liberators of Libya (to use the Bush administration’s phrase). All in all, Obama’s gamble seems to be paying off exceedingly well. Whether this helps the president or not politically (here at home), the Libyan rebels seem pretty happy with the way the war was fought, and with the way America fought our part of it. And it needs pointing out — to all of Obama’s critics — that this may be the truest measure of success possible. How long has it been, after all, since America took part in a war where at the end of it throngs of people crowded around a sign thanking us for our efforts?
[Program Note: It wasn’t germane to the theme of this article, but Matt Osborne over at OsborneInk.com has the best overall wrapup of the war (complete with well-detailed maps) from a technical and sociological point of view that I’ve yet seen. I recommend it for anyone interested in an in-depth look at what the Libyan war was about, and what it all means.]
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant