After saying for months that Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s days in power were numbered, President Barack Obama said yesterday the future of Libya is “in the hands of its people.”
The end of Qaddafi’s 42-year rule would hand Obama a foreign policy victory at a time when his leadership at home is being questioned by political opponents and voters. The operation in Libya came off with no U.S. casualties and with European allies carrying a portion of the military burden.
“The Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one,” Obama said yesterday in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, while warning that the fight isn’t over.
To be sure, the ultimate outcome in Libya isn’t settled. Qaddafi remains at large and loyalist troops have continued clashing with the rebels. After providing six months of airstrikes, tactical intelligence and logistics support, the U.S. and its allies remain uncertain about the future control of Libya, which holds Africa’s biggest proven oil reserves, under the loose collection of exiles, nationalists and regime defectors who have led the fight to oust Qaddafi.
“Now there’s a kind of euphoria, but there are all kinds of reasons to be cautious about what comes next,” said Dirk Vandewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire who is an expert on Libya.
Since announcing in March that he authorized “limited” U.S. military engagement to enforce a no-fly zone over Libya in conjunction with the U.K., France and Italy, Obama has come under fire from Republicans both for doing too much and too little. The campaign evolved from a mission to protect civilians from government forces to include bombing raids and air cover for the rebels. Obama eventually turned control of the mission over to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Republican Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who is seeking her party’s nomination to run against Obama in 2012, argued that the president failed to articulate U.S. goals or identify a vital national interest for military involvement in Libya and criticized him for deferring to NATO. She voted in June against authorizing the mission and called for cutting off funding.
Bachmann didn’t back away from her stance yesterday, even as she said she had high hopes for a new government there.
“I opposed U.S. military involvement in Libya and I am hopeful that our intervention there is about to end,” Bachmann said in a statement.
Arizona Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008, faulted Obama for not going far enough.
“Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower,” McCain said in a joint statement with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
William Cohen, chairman of the Cohen Group consulting firm and former defense secretary in the Clinton administration, said it is unfair to criticize the U.S for “leading from behind” in its response in Libya and other Arab nations experiencing anti-government upheavals.
“I think the United States has played it about right at this point,” Cohen said in an interview. With U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, deeper intervention in a third Muslim country “would have been a mistake.”
Test for Congress
The tougher test ahead may be more for Congress than Obama, said Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“Is the Congress capable of any non-partisan effort that would really help sustain the emergence of a stable and democratic Libya?” he said. “Ultimately, it is what we do next that is going to be at least as important in getting any meaningful outcome from Qaddafi’s fall as the military actions we provided that removed him from power.”
Administration officials said the results demonstrate the critics were wrong.
“We do think that this shows that our strategy both succeeded in stopping Qaddafi’s forces from massacring civilians and it succeeded in tipping the balance in favor of the opposition in a period of just several months,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “Six months is very quick following a 42-year dictatorship.”
Cost to U.S.
The cost to the U.S. for the Libya operations is on pace to reach $1 billion. The Defense Department spent $896 million through July 31, surpassing an earlier estimate sent to Congress that the operations would cost $800 million by the end of September.
The total “includes amounts for daily military operations, munitions used in the operation,” non-lethal aid and humanitarian assistance, according to Commander Wendy Snyder, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Rhodes said the success of the rebels in Libya also has implications for U.S. policy toward Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has carried out a deadly crackdown against protests. Obama, joined by the leaders of the U.K. France, Germany and Canada, on Aug. 18 called on Assad to step down.
In Libya, “we wanted to make sure that the forces of change in the region were empowered and were not overrun by a dictator,” Rhodes said. “It sends a message to Assad that the trends are against those who try to crack down and stifle change.”
Assad may face steadily increasing international pressure, though not necessarily armed conflict with the U.S. and its allies.
“We can’t replicate the exact same type of U.S. engagement in each country,” he said.