Washington: Moammar Gadhafi’s violent end handed President Barack Obama more vindication for a theory of war that is piling up mounting successes but few political dividends ahead of a tough reelection bid.
Obama can now claim to have, directly or indirectly, dispatched three of America’s most sworn enemies within six months: Libya’s Gadhafi, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s Yemen-based operative Anwar al-Awlaqi.
Dealing with two sapping US wars in Muslim nations, Obama was initially reluctant to launch military action in Libya. But he opted for a multilateral assault with European NATO allies and a few Arab states when Gadhafi threatened mass murder against civilians.
A Libyan former rebel fighter kicks a graffiti depicting Moammar Gadhafi with “Allah Hakbar, God is Great” written on top. Photo: AP
“As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action,” Obama said in March, justifying a United States (US) decision to rain air strikes on Gadhafi’s forces in a United Nations (UN) mandated operation.
Obama’s hard-nosed attitude to wiping out US enemies with military force will likely defuse one time-honored Republican electoral tactic - branding Democratic presidents wobbly on national security.
But his brief opinion poll bump after the killing of bin Laden in May quickly dissolved, with voters fixated on the moribund economy. So Gadhafi will likely be old news when polls open in November 2012.
Obama’s decision to take part in a thunderous initial air assault on Libya and then let French and British warplanes maintain frontline operations enraged some Republicans who seized on a conceit that he was “leading from behind.”
Other Republicans attacked from another flank, accusing the president of usurping constitutional powers by deploying US forces without a congressional mandate.
But Obama said his aims did not amount to war but a limited operation to protect civilians, one that relied on airpower, shared the burden with European allies and placed no US military boots on the ground.
The White House maintained all along that Gadhafi would eventually be toppled, despite skeptical media coverage, and it was eventually vindicated.
But Republican critics maintained on Thursday that Obama’s initial indecision and the tactics he adopted cost lives. “There was a point early in this conflict where the US would have gotten involved and done what we’ve done so aggressively, this conflict would have ended a lot sooner,” said Republican rising star senator Marco Rubio.
“Sometimes, making the right decision also has to be made at the right time and scale. I think this president failed to do that,” Rubio told CNN.
However, Obama said Thursday that the US and its allies “did exactly what we said we were going to do in Libya.”
“It underscores the capacity of us to work together as an international community. The United States obviously has unique capacities, and we were proud of the leadership we showed in that process.”
Some analysts believe that the decision to have British and French forces take the lead in Libya was partly designed to appease a war-weary US public.
“America led from behind in the sense that we didn’t conduct the bulk of air operations,” said Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. “But... America was the key to those operations. We supplied the bulk of the command and control, and we did a lot more of the bombing and flights over Libya than have become known to date.”
US actions against Kadhafi, Awlaqi, Al-Qaeda suspects in Pakistani tribal areas and bin Laden were all carried out with deadly US air power - planes or drones - but without deploying large numbers of ground troops. As such, they differed from the huge land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which sapped US power, cost trillions of dollars and sent thousands of American soldiers to their deaths.
Even Gadhafi’s demise seems to have been precipitated by aerial action - a NATO warplane or US drone is believed to have fired on his convoy outside his hometown of Sirte - allowing rebel fighters to capture him.
“In this case, America spent $2 billion total and didn’t lose a single life,” vice president Joe Biden said. “This is more the prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward than it has been in the past.”
The Libya episode also fitted Obama’s guidelines for dealing with other Arab Spring revolts - that Washington should allow oppressed people to win their own liberation, rather than impose change upon them.
But it is unclear where the Libya template might be used next - given that there is little appetite for US military action to back another Arab revolt, in Syria, for instance.