In the words of that well known foreign policy analyst Yogi Berra, it’s not over until it’s over, and Libya is far from over. Muammar Gaddafi remains in play—somewhere—while railing against the “rats, crusaders and unbelievers” who have pushed him from power.
In public, U.S. officials suggest that Gaddafi’s whereabouts “almost doesn’t matter.” In private, they know that what he does until he is captured or killed surely does matter (think Iraq). Gaddafi cannot reverse recent events—he is history—but he can make life very difficult for the National Transitional Council, the emerging interim government. An effective counter-insurgency could at the very least delay political progress if not derail the political unity that is vital to a successful transition in Libya.
NATO is having trouble describing what it is doing now. It continues to protect civilians in accordance with its UN mandate. It may be helping in the on-going search for Gaddafi, or not. The British defense minister says yes. The Pentagon says no, but that it’s not speaking for the whole government.
But on both tactical and strategic grounds, the intervention is a success. For purists, style points don’t matter.
Tactically, both the stated and inferred missions, protecting the civilian population and supporting the rebellion, have been accomplished at an acceptable cost, and with no allied casualties. The only boots on the ground have been Special Forces, spies, diplomats, and development experts.
Strategically, success reinforces the relevance of the NATO alliance. The degree to which the Obama administration detached itself from the operation politically is discomforting. There is no such thing as leading from behind. But turning the steering wheel over to European nations, who have a greater stake in the future of Libya, was brilliant. And forcing leading European countries to put real skin in the game did more to strengthen NATO than years of U.S. hectoring about declining European defense budgets.
Success makes moot various criticisms that the administration did not move fast enough, didn’t do enough, or should not have done anything at all.
Taking them in order, within the region, there was remarkable support for the intervention, particularly given the still unresolved concerns about Iraq. The administration took the time to build regional support and gain the necessary authority and legitimacy through a United Nations Security Council resolution. It was time well invested and has paid a rich dividend.
As for the level of effort, what was done did not represent overwhelming force (that was not the mandate), but much like the Kosovo operation in the late 1990s, it was enough. The mission’s goal was not military victory, but a limited intervention to enables a desired political outcome. Like Kosovo, the heaving lifting will involve primarily diplomacy and development and will take years of effort. Unlike say Egypt, Libya has few institutions to fall back on following the removal of its dictator. When rebels overran Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli, it basically out wiped out what passed for the Libyan government.
While the international community and United States will need to support Libya going forward, whatever happens, the revolution belongs to the Libyan people. It will be their success or their failure. The United States, in contrast to Iraq, does not own Libya.
Finally, those who suggested we have no stake in what happens in Libya, including many Republican presidential candidates, fail to see the strategic forest through the trees.
Back in March, on the heels of successful protests and fragile transitions underway in Tunisia and Egypt, a violent reversal in Libya could have stalled this fundamental transformation of a vital region that is a core national security interest. Gaddafi’s demise preserves this momentum. Success in Libya doesn’t make the ongoing challenges in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain any easier. But it certainly lifts the spirits of the remarkable protest movements in these countries that want the same opportunity Tunisians, Egyptians, and now Libyans have.
Bashar al-Assad must be discomfited by what he is seeing on Al-Jazeera, including rants by Gaddafi from an undisclosed location. Assad probably has yet to fill out a change of address card, but neither did Gaddafi. And now he is on the run, and almost gone.