The Magazine

To the Shores of Tripoli

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By ROBERT KAGAN
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With Muammar Qaddafi still at large, continued fighting in parts of Libya, and an uncertain future ahead for that country’s long-oppressed people, one hesitates to make too many categorical judgments about the remarkable turn of events there. A few things can be said, however.

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The toppling of Qaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship is a huge victory for the ongoing pan-Arab revolution known as the Arab Spring. The political map of the Middle East has been torn up after four decades of stultifying, soul-draining dictatorship (or, as one prominent American statesman once put it, “forty years of stability”). A region known for its interminable dynasties and would-be dynasties—Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Saddam in Iraq, the Assads in Syria, the Husseins in Jordan, the Saudi royal family—is witnessing the fall of one after another of those anachronistic icons. Of the remaining hold outs, perhaps some of those wise and nimble enough to respond to the surge of popular demands will survive. The kings may turn themselves into constitutional monarchs, transferring much of their power to elected parliaments. But those who resist the tide will ultimately fall, and probably by force of arms—as in Libya.

In this respect, then, Libya was no sideshow. It was a critical part of the unfolding evolution of the region. Had Qaddafi been allowed to win his battle against the rebels, had his forces been allowed to enter the city of Benghazi, crush the rebellion, and carry out his promise to kill every last opponent of the regime, the aftershocks would have reverberated throughout the Middle East. That he has instead fallen to popular forces will also resonate, especially, one hopes, in Syria. The fall of Qaddafi significantly increases the pressure on the Assad regime in Damascus. Now even some of the conservative Gulf Arab states, some of whom backed the rebels in Libya, are lending their weight to the anti-Assad push. If and when the Damascus regime falls, the unseating of Qaddafi will be a significant part of the story.

That is one reason why the fall of Qaddafi is also a triumph for the United States and its NATO allies. There is much to criticize in the way NATO handled the operations. The Libyan intervention was certainly not the death knell for the alliance, as some have suggested, but neither was it a sign of great strength and vitality.

What is unquestionable, however, is that NATO stepped forward at a critical moment and turned the tide. The simple fact is that without NATO’s armed intervention, including nearly 8,000 strike sorties, the insertion of special forces, and the provision of military assistance to the rebels, Qaddafi would have succeeded in crushing the rebellion and massacring thousands if not tens of thousands of men, women, and children.

By intervening, with force, the NATO alliance not only saved the people of Libya and kept alive the momentum of the Arab Spring. The alliance also demonstrated, at a time when such demonstration is sorely needed, that the world’s great democracies are not enfeebled, ineffective, disunited, and in a state of terminal decline. They are, in fact, powerful, capable of acting in unison, and, most important, still committed to acting in the world on behalf of their interests and their ideals. That they succeeded in helping to topple Qaddafi, despite having tied at least one hand behind their own backs, shows that there is still life in those old bones. Just imagine if the democracies had come with their A game—that is, with the full power of the United States.

Still, the end of Qaddafi’s rule is a great accomplishment for the Obama administration and for the president personally. It is a shame that some administration officials are trying to downplay the role of the United States in this whole affair, absurdly trying to turn the “leading from behind” gaffe into a kind of Obama doctrine. In fact, the United States was not “leading from behind.” By far the most important decision taken by any world leader in this entire episode—the decision that made all the difference—was President Obama’s decision that the United States and the world could not stand by and see the people of Ben
ghazi massacred.

That American choice was the turning point. All praise to France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron for being ahead of the president in seeing the need for armed action—just as Margaret Thatcher was ahead of George H.W. Bush in seeing the need for action against Saddam Hussein in 1990. But here is the plain and critical truth of the matter: None of this could have been done without the United States leading the way.

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