One leader's demise may become another's saving grace.
The whereabouts of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi remain unknown. But with rebel troops sweeping into Tripoli, it has become clear that his four decade long rule is finally at an end. Gunfire in the Libyan capital city Monday morning was reportedly mostly celebratory.
Obama administration officials may have been celebrating as well, if more quietly, in Washington. For months, hawks and doves alike have ridiculed the Obama administration's approach to Libya, which one anonymous Obama adviser memorably characterized as "leading from behind" in an article in The New Yorker earlier this year. Fears of a Libyan stalemate only spurred doubts about how and whether the United States should be involved in the civil war between Qadhafi and his opposition. But now, with Qadhafi's defeat within reach, Obama's strategy of the United States acting as part of a broader international effort seems vindicated.
For starters, it's become clear over the past few months, and especially after the weekend's events in Tripoli, that the rebel forces have largely benefited from NATO's intervention. According to Mark Quarterman, director of the program on crisis, conflict, and cooperation at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, despite the United Nations Security Council having limited NATO's mission to protecting civilians, it has played a vital supporting role in the rebel efforts to unseat Qadhafi, both by taking out his regime's military capabilities and by helping the rebels to organize themselves.
Without NATO, it's unlikely that the rebels would have been able to last this long against Qadhafi's regime, says P.J. Crowley, former assistant secretary of state for public affairs, who resigned earlier this year, just as the Obama administration began to consider actions in Libya. "The intervention has been crucial," he says. "At various times in the back and forth battle of the past six months, NATO has helped the rebel movement survive."
So, as the key part of that international coalition, the United States, and Obama, can take at least partial credit for the rebels' success while boasting that little was lost back at home. While U.S. involvement certainly has had a price tag, the financial costs and the five months since U.S. planes led the start of NATO's mission back on March 19 have been minimal compared to other foreign interventions. And, without boots on the ground, the effort has been fairly bloodless from a U.S. domestic perspective.
For Obama, also, the real victory looking forward is that this remained in the hands of the Libyans themselves. While NATO helped them to survive, they're the ones that stormed Tripoli, and they're the ones who will lead the upcoming transition. In a statement released late Sunday night, Obama acknowledged that the next steps will also need to be executed by the Libyans, with the United States and allies still lending a hand. "The future of Libya is now in the hands of the Libyan people. Going forward, the United States will continue to stay in close coordination with the [Transitional National Council]. We will continue to insist that the basic rights of the Libyan people are respected. And we will continue to work with our allies and partners in the international community to protect the people of Libya, and to support a peaceful transition to democracy," Obama said.
Some in Congress, like Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, have maintained their criticism of the Obama administration for not using American military power in a stronger fashion to end the conflict earlier. "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," said McCain in a joint statement with another Republican hawk, Sen. Lindsay Graham from South Carolina.
But for all the criticism, there's also no hard evidence that a stronger U.S. intervention in the beginning would have led to a more positive outcome than today. "We're moving into a post-Qadhafi period in Libya, and that is something to be seen as positive. The Libyan people have climbed one mountain, but they have many mountains in front of them," Quarterman says. "But I think that the criticisms of whether it could have happened sooner or later, or if more bombs should have been dropped, or whether they should have been dropped by U.S. planes will not seem so important as time passes."