Obama, Libya and triumphalism in Washington

Joe Cirincione writes:

This week, in Libya, thousands of people celebrated carrying posters of “The Fantastic Four”: Obama, Rice, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. All four played a leading role in supporting the people of Libya in their overthrow of a tyrant. But it was America that played the crucial role. It was America that decided at a key moment to “invest in protecting the lives of others” and to join with NATO not to overthrow a regime, but to help the people of Libya make the regime change that only they could effect.

That is leadership. That is smart. And this is what victory feels like.

Joel Rubin writes:

President Obama’s critics are on the verge of witnessing a third major Obama success in the Arab world in 2011.

First, longtime Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak was deposed after Obama refused to support him against the Egyptian people at the moment of truth. Second, Osama bin Laden, America’s archenemy #1, was killed by Navy SEALS on direct orders from Obama in a risky cross-border raid into Pakistan. And now, Muammar Gaddafi — a man whose presence on the international stage has mocked any reasonable definition of sanity for more than four decades — is about to be knocked out of power by an international coalition in which Obama ensured that the U.S. played a leading team role.

Fareed Zacharia, heralding a new era in U.S. foreign policy, writes:

The United States decided that it was only going to intervene in Libya if it could establish several conditions:

1) A local group that was willing to fight and die for change; in other words, “indigenous capacity”.

2) Locally recognized legitimacy in the form of the Arab League’s request for intervention.

3) International legitimacy in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

4) Genuine burden sharing with the British and French spelling out precisely how many sorties they would be willing to man and precisely what level of commitment they would be willing to provide.

It was only when all those conditions were fulfilled that the Obama Administration agreed to play a pivotal but supporting role in the Libya operation.

Perhaps if Obama gets re-elected (though I wouldn’t place large bets on that yet), he’ll invite a few Libyans to Washington so that they can celebrate the pivotal role they played in securing his second term.

Needless to say, I jest. Even Obama’s most loyal boosters would be forced to concede that hardly any votes in the 2012 presidential election will end up being swayed by the outcome of the Libyan revolution.

So let’s assume that Zacharia and Rubin and Cirincione are simply celebrating what they regard as a foreign policy success (and are not driven just by some idea that the outcome in Libya is good for Obama), what should we make of their analysis?

As usual it comes weighted down by the conceit that Washington is the center of the world.

Libyans who spent the last six months fighting for their country — they are just supporting actors with the honor of rolling out a red carpet along which America can now stride on its way to glory.

Has everyone forgotten? The idea that on Libya, Obama “led from behind” was a facetious way of spinning the fact that in this intervention, he really was the reluctant partner. US involvement was agreed to on the strict condition that American soldiers could maintain a comfortable distance from Libya, while their commander in chief kept his distance from Congress and the media.

America’s arm-length involvement in Libya was indeed a success, but not in the sense that success is now being paraded. It was a success in as much as it is clear to most people (at least outside Washington) that victory in Libya belongs to the people of Libya. They know they couldn’t have succeeded without Western support, but it is Libyans who died in their thousands while their allies shed not a single drop of blood.

Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, and Rice — these were the supporting actors. NATO’s involvement was much more reluctant than it was opportunistic and it was driven by fears about the potential price of non-involvement.

Those who now want to construct out of this a model for other interventions seem to have no more imagination than those who not long ago employed the simplistic argument that what “worked” in Iraq should work in Afghanistan.

Washington was able to help out a bunch of Arabs in Libya when they got in trouble — should be able to do the same in Syria. Right?

The lesson to take away from Libya is that in the Arab Awakening no two uprisings are the same and no idea is more dangerous than that a successful intervention can be replicated.

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3 thoughts on “Obama, Libya and triumphalism in Washington

  1. dickerson3870

    RE: “Obama, Libya and triumphalism in Washington”

    MY COMMENT: Mission accomplished? Peace in our time? Only time will tell.

  2. KFritz


    The initial mistake of comparison was that the “small footprint on the ground” used in Afghanistan could be extrapolated to Iraq, with its totally different social structure, geography, etc, etc. If Saddam Hussein and Sons hadn’t fought so ineptly and hadn’t based all their plans on creating a post-invasion insurgency, the initial conflict would have been much more costly, bloody, and difficult.
    The first two months of the Afghan war were fought nearly perfectly, but the Bush/Cheney admin plainly had no coherent follow-up plan, and were already obsessed with planning for Iraq.

  3. Susan

    Zacharia and Rubin and Cirincione are full of shit.

    Zacharia was full of shit about Iraq too…. not sure about the other two.

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