Muammar Gadhafi is out as the ruler of Libya and America breathes a sign of relief. Before the Arab Spring spread its unrest to Libya, the average American knew little about this nation of 6 million.
We saw it as the land of sand, oil and a colorful, crazed dictator who ran it with an iron fist for the last 42 years. But in an election year, that’s no excuse for not having an opinion on how President Obama screwed it up.
The sand (otherwise known as the Sahara Desert) we could probably do without. But Libya is the largest oil-producing nation in Africa (with the capacity to produce 2-3 billion barrels of oil a day). That’s more than just a drop in the bucket for European nations just across the Mediterranean. So the drumbeat to war was strong last February when there was another uprising in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, especially after Gadhafi sent his mechanized army in to quell the insurgency.
Imagine the Bush Administration Response
If the United States were still in the Bush-Cheney era, does anybody doubt what the American response would have been? In his newly-released autobiography, the former vice president not only defends the two wars his administration instigated in Afghanistan and Iraq but says that he also counseled the bombing of nuclear facilities in Syria and Iran “to restore American credibility in the region.” How long do you think the man who once ran Halliburton would have stood by while European leaders staked their claim to Libya’s future oil?
A Reluctant Leader or a Wise One?
President Obama’s response to the Libyan uprising was decidedly different. Initially, Obama resisted leading another “coalition of the willing” to bring down Gadhafi. (His Secretary of Defense Robert Gates openly proclaimed on Meet the Press that Libya posed no vital strategic interest to the United States.) The last thing America needed was troops on the ground in a third, unfunded war in the Middle East, the administration reasoned, especially when Republicans in Congress were balking at raising the debt ceiling. But when Gadhafi forces moved to the edge of Benghazi threatening brutal retaliation, the President acceded to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s urgings to intervene––under certain conditions.
By the time Obama acted, Clinton had quietly negotiated most of them: American involvement would come only if the NATO nations in Europe, who had the most to gain by safeguarding the oil, took a lead role in the coalition and shouldered their fair share of the cost; only if the local rebel leaders clearly invited American intervention; only if there was a supporting United Nations resolution; and only if the Arab League joined the effort and Arab nations materially participated in the campaign (as Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates eventually did.)
One White House official characterized the President’s foreign policy approach as “leading from behind.” Less than 48 hours later, the phrase rebounded across the Internet in derisive comments on Republican blogs and web pages.
The Republican Response
Ron Paul (on principle) and Michele Bachmann (reading the tea leaves) echoed Gate’s view that America was better off out of this war than in. But Obama’s 2008 Republican opponent John McCain flew to the war zone and quickly denounced Obama for being too timid in deploying the full weight of our air power.
McCain’s Senate colleague Lindsey Graham chided the President for not being “at least be as bold as the French.” Newt Gingrich said America’s intervention was “about as badly run as any foreign operation we’ve seen in our lifetime.” Mitt Romney, the frontrunner in the Republican race, took the curious tack that he supported American intervention but was disheartened it did not come from Obama’s belief in “American exceptionalism.”
“We’re following the French into Libya,” Romney told radio commentator Hugh Hewitt. “ I appreciate the fact that others are participating in this effort, but I think we look to America to be the leader of the world,” he added.
A Timid Response?
When America did intervene, it was hardly a second fiddle in the operation. On the first day, 122 American and British tomahawk missiles took out Gadhafi’s air defenses to create a no-fly zone.
Over the next five months, American planes flew more than 6,000 missions over Iraq. U.S. air support came in the form of A-10 attack aircraft, B-2 stealth bombers, AV-8B Harrier jump jets, F15 and F16 fighter jets, and an EA-18 airborne electronic command center flying out of six U.S. air bases in Europe. Libyan observers also noted as early as April that predator drones from the United States were prowling the air space.
Eleven U.S. navy vessels were deployed to the operation, including two guided-missile destroyers, a nuclear attack submarine, a cruise missile submarine, the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge and the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney.
The CIA acknowledged having CIA operatives on the ground to guide airborne strikes away from civilian targets. No doubt others were engaged in more critical activities.
Comparing the Costs
The U.S. military intervention in Libya went on five months. Last week, the Obama administration released figures showing the cost of the Libyan intervention through July 31 came to $896 million and produced no American military casualties. Compare that to the decade-old Afghanistan and Iraqi Wars, the $3 trillion they added to the U.S. deficit, and the 6,225 dead and over 100,000 soldiers wounded in those wars. Maybe leading from behind isn’t such a bad strategy after all.
Planning For The Future
Americans as a rule tend to be very ego-centric about our wars. We like it when it’s us versus them, because we believe we can always win if we just get stronger.
The triumph of the Obama administration’s leading from behind strategy in Libya is that it recognized wars are not won on the battlefield these days. They are won in the aftermath when the conflict ends and the reconstruction begins.
The Unknown Unknowns
After American troops trounced Saddam Hussein’s army in Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld famously outlined “the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns” that emerged when it came time to put Iraq back together again. With 200,000 American troops in country––and needing twice as many to establish martial order over the major cities––the Bush administration appointed a state department bureaucrat named Paul Bremer to lead a Coalition Provision Authority.
Bremer couldn’t tell a Sunni from a Shia in Iraq. (Can you?) His first order of business was to purge the government of all Baathist Party followers of Saddam who ran all the critical government agencies. His second was to disband the Iraqi army, leaving 450,000 unemployed soldiers to fend for themselves in a country with no other jobs to offer. His third was to issue 29 decrees that he believed would transform Iraq into a democracy based on private enterprise solutions. President Bush enjoyed the highest ratings of his tenure after his successful invasion of Iraq. But never have so many suffered so much from the misapplication of American exceptionalism.
A Tribal Culture
Libya is not so much a country (what African nation with straight line borders is?) as a collection of nomadic tribes. Modern day Libya consists of some 140 tribes and clans who once roamed the Sahara, as well as Berber and Turk immigrants. Thirty of them still have a strong influence on its culture and politics and each has its own territorial roots and family connections to jobs (especially in government), personal safety and religious institutions.
Muammar Gadhafi had the good fortune to seize power in a military coup in 1969 just before the discovery of oil in Libya gave him the money and international influence to build his military muscle.
His tribe (the Gadhafi) is relatively small compared to the Misurata, Magariha and Zawiya tribes in Libya. It doesn’t have the prominence of families like the Zamoura, el-Mahjoub or Kawafi tribe who have embraced modern life in the coastal cities. Nor does it reach into the small wadi in the Sahara where the Kawar and conservative elements of the Misurata still hold sway.
The Transitional Tribal Council
Out of sight of the war in Libya we can watch on cable news through the brave efforts of journalists on the front lines, Secretary of State Clinton and her deputies have been spending an inordinate amount of time in London and Doha and Benghazi with the rebel National Transitional Council trying to sort out who among the tribal leaders controls what, and what a new government might look like.
This is tenuous territory. The transitional council has pulled off a remarkable feat just coordinating the attack on Tripoli. It has won the recognition of 71 countries so far as the new legitimate government of Libya, and this week became the conduit for western banks to begin releasing some of Gadhafi’s frozen assets to help with the Libyan reconstruction.
There are still a lot of “unknown unknowns” ahead. The good news is that Libyans are sorting out who will run Libya after the fall of Gadhafi, not clueless American bureaucrats. The bad news is that this process won’t take place on the 24/7 schedule of cable news. They’ll just have to wait for history to take its course.
And for not having to watch the return of dead soldiers in flag-draped coffins, we have to give credit to President Obama––and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.