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To the Shores of Tripoli

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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Only the United States has the military capacity, the weaponry, the surveillance technology, and the skill to open a safe path for the air and ground war against Qaddafi’s forces. France and Britain alone would not and probably could not have done the job without unacceptable risk to their forces, which were very thin to begin with. In the early days, especially, American A-10 and AC-130 ground attack aircraft were critical in pummeling Qaddafi’s armored vehicles and forcing them to halt offensives against rebel positions. In the last days of the conflict, American high-tech surveillance allowed the rebels to pinpoint the positions of Qaddafi forces in and around Tripoli. Throughout months of fighting, prowling American Predator drones forced Qaddafi and his men to keep their heads down.

The president and his secretary of state also carried out an adept diplomacy that eventually garnered not only European but, remarkably, Arab support as well. This in turn forced both Russia and China—fearful of Arab wrath—to acquiesce. There were costs, of course: a U.N. resolution inadequate to the task at hand and the usual problem of trying to keep many players on board during a mission. On balance, however, it was worth it. The administration was surely right that the intervention would be more effective if it did not appear to be exclusively an American operation and that the combination of European and Arab support for removing Qaddafi was enough of a prize to warrant some compromises.

But the larger point is that, again, only the United States could have pulled all these disparate political and regional forces together. No other nation, not France, not Great Britain, not even a united EU (which German opposition prevented) could have managed this global diplomatic task. In this allegedly “post-American” world, the United States remains both indispensable and irreplaceable.

Furthermore, the president deserves credit because his decision was unpopular and politically risky. The foreign policy establishment was almost unanimously opposed, and an assortment of wise men spent months predicting certain failure. In Congress a significant number of Republicans joined with the likes of Dennis Kucinich in opposing the military operation, to the point of voting not to authorize funding in June—a shameful moment for a party that under three consecutive presidents had stood for a robust and active U.S. role in the world. Some Republican presidential candidates, either out of opportunism or conviction, joined in opposition.

Many of the criticisms of the administration’s conduct were warranted. The Libyan intervention was certainly no beauty. The president was slow to take action. The arbitrary decision to stop flying the A-10s and AC-130s after only a few days of action was unwise and unnecessary, and may have prolonged the war by months. Nor is there any question that the president and his advisers were spooked by public opinion, worried about committing the United States to yet another intervention—in the Middle East, no less—and, in the midst of a crushing economic crisis, were looking to carry out the operation as cheaply as possible. Administration spinners who are now telling a gullible press corps what a brilliantly conceived operation this was from beginning to end know perfectly well that they are spouting nonsense.

But what’s new? American interventions, large and small, are never pretty. American presidents are always slow to see the need for action, always worried about their political backsides, and almost always looking for the exits as soon as they decide to act. Republican critics, especially those who served during the Reagan years or in either Bush administration, should look in the mirror. The Reagan folks may want to recall the handling of the intervention in Lebanon. The Bush I folks may want to remember their boss’s inaction in the early days of the Balkan slaughter. Those from Bush II need only look at Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States almost never does these things well. But sometimes we succeed nevertheless. This is one of those times.

Or at least one hopes so. The game in Libya is far from over. In one sense, it is only just beginning. There is an awful lot that can go wrong in a country that has been governed by a mad despot for four decades. The Obama administration is now where the Bush administration was in November 2001 in Afghanistan and in April 2003 in Iraq—the dictator has fallen but a new order has yet to emerge. The dangers are the same: disorder and anarchy, a return to violence, the possibility of Libya becoming a failed state. The common wisdom stemming from the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan is that failure to manage the transition to a new government capable of holding the country together can rapidly turn success into disaster. Presumably the president and his advisers know this. Yet the temptation to run away from Libya as quickly as possible, after a “win” for the president, will be enormous. President Obama needs to resist it.

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