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Saturday, September 3, 2011
Libya And The Obama Doctrine
The U.S. campaign was a success but a provisional and limited one.
Qaddafi is gone, but his ouster will not become a model for future
By Michael O'Hanlon
of this writing, the Obama administration's Libya policy appears to have been
successful. The combination of targeted airpower, a gradual tightening of the
economic and legal nooses around the necks of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi
and his cohorts, diplomatic engagement with the Libyan opposition, and quiet
efforts (mostly by Europeans) to work militarily with that opposition
ultimately paid off.
is, of course, a provisional judgment. If fighting rages on in Tripoli for an
extended time, the basic humanitarian objectives of the original mission could
be compromised. So could the prospects for reconciliation once the dust
settles. Prolonged violence will make it harder for the former antagonists to
form a workable and stable coalition to build a new Libya. In the end, this
could be a victory -- but an ugly one, as I wrote in March ("Winning Ugly
that article, I compared the Libya case to another ugly win more than a decade
ago: NATO's in Kosovo. In that conflict, the postwar challenge was in many ways
easier than what the West faces in Libya. The Serbian leadership remained
intact, and Kosovo's liberation force was generally cohesive. There was also no
particular need for the two sides to reconcile; Kosovo became a haven for
ethnic Albanians, Serbia remained one for Serbs. Meanwhile, NATO and the United
States were presumably prepared to resume operations there if Serbian leader
Slobodan Milosevic attacked Kosovo again.
contrast, many of Libya's tribes are still friendly to Qaddafi yet will need to
be included in a future government. Leaving them out of the process could lead
to factionalism, civil war, and even terrorism. And so far, NATO has no plans
to deploy ground troops to Libya, although some, including Council on Foreign
Relations Fellow Max Boot, have suggested that it be willing to do so. Even if
it did, such a force would only be to the good if the United States played a
modest role in it and Arab -- or at least Muslim-majority -- countries sent
troops as well.
with Libya seemingly on the right track for now, many have already called the
campaign evidence of a clear Obama doctrine. To the contrary: Qaddafi's ouster
will not be the signature accomplishment of a president who has somehow found a
new and successful approach toward greater multilateralism and burden sharing.
was a special case. For one, President Barack Obama could be patient and
deferential to the Europeans there, because Libya is a second-tier regional
player and of limited strategic value to the United States.
during the five months of the military campaign, U.S. economic woes became so
severe that the importance of the Libya issue essentially disappeared from
public view. Continued killing in Syria, unrest in Yemen, and major uncertainty
in Egypt reinforce this point. All of these countries are probably more
important in terms of U.S. interests, yet Obama has made no moves to get
Libya's geography was extremely conducive to waging an airpower campaign. The
country's demographics, with different tribes concentrated in separate cities
along the coast and within reach of numerous NATO airfields, are not a luxury
the United States will often enjoy.
Qaddafi was so unpopular among Arabs that, even given Obama's low popularity in
the Arab world today, NATO could find allies there to lend the operation
Obama's taking a secondary role in a humanitarian intervention is actually no
great breakthrough in the annals of U.S. foreign policy. Be it Somalia, Rwanda,
or another case, Washington has tended to try to minimize its role over the
years. Obama played the supporting role better than U.S. presidents usually do.
He deserves credit for that but not as much for novelty or creativeness.
yes, so far, so good in Libya. Still, I am not sure that the United States'
momentary engagement with Libya will mean much in terms of its future endeavors
at home and abroad. Libya was a success but a provisional and limited one to
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Affairs on
-MICHAEL O'HANLON is the Director of Research and a Senior Fellow of Foreign
Policy at the Brookings Institution