Success in Libya Doesn’t Vindicate Obama

The American president “led from behind” and caused the Libyan war to drag on for months.

President Barack Obama is briefed on vacation in Massachusetts, August 19
President Barack Obama is briefed on vacation in Massachusetts, August 19 (White House/Pete Souza)

With Libya’s rebels on the verge of ousting longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, those who favored President Barack Obama’s apparently lukewarm support for the NATO intervention may seek to vindicate his strategy of “leading from behind” but they would be missing a crucial point — that without a powerful American commitment, Libya’s civil war dragged on for months and exhausted the military capabilities of NATO partners in the process.

When the Libyan regime attempted to crush its version of the Arab Spring with deadly force in February of this year, the Obama Administration was reluctant to endorse calls for a military intervention which emerged from Paris and London. It seemed as though France and the United Kingdom had to drag America kicking and screaming into participating in an intervention. Having disabled Gaddafi’s air defenses and enforced a no-fly zone, the United States subsequently expected their allies to take the lead.

Without the full force of American airpower, Britain, France and other NATO countries managed to prevent further brutalities against civilians but failed to decide the struggle in the rebels’ favor until months after the intervention began.

Only after NATO extended its United Nations mandate to protect Libyan civilians and began coordinating strikes with anti-government forces could they break the gridlock and defeat loyalists on the road to Tripoli. An intensification of American aerial surveillance in and around the capital in particular was cited by NATO officials as a major factor in helping to tilt the balance. According to the Pentagon, the number of American air attacks nearly doubled during the last twelve days before rebels could enter the capital.

The battle for Tripoli came just in time for NATO as its mandate was due to expire next month. If the alliance had to vote on resuming military action, it’s quite possible that members as Germany, Italy and Turkey, which were skeptical of the intervention and had even called for a suspension of airstrikes, would have prevented Britain and France from continuing under the NATO umbrella. Both countries’ military resources were drain by the effort. Paris announced that it had to withdraw its single aircraft carrier from the mission two weeks ago. Norway stopped flying sorties over Libya this month.

America may be overstretched with two wars in the Middle East and anti-terrorism operations in Pakistan and Yemen while maintaining a permanent military presence in allied countries around the world, including Germany and South Korea. But the toll imposed on European defense forces by the intervention in Libya has been much heavier.

President Obama could have lifted that burden without making America seem to be in charge — which, considering Arab and European opposition to his predecessor’s unilateralism, would have been an unwelcome perception. Indeed, it appeared that in the end, he did, repudiating the notion that the United States could have played no more than a “supportive role” in the conflict as the Obama White House originally envisaged.

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