Can Obama boast about U.S. role in Libya? Not so fast

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — With Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi under siege in his own capital, President Barack Obama soon may be able to claim success for his approach that ultimately toppled a dictator while leaving much of the dirty business to the rebellious Libyans themselves.

Last spring, his strategy of a limited U.S. role in a NATO effort that was itself just a supporting role did not guarantee a good outcome in Libya, but it allowed America to avoid direct involvement in another war.

But by leaving the battle to the rebels, Obama and the West left uncertainty. It's unknown whether a unified, democratic government will replace the dictator. Nor did it establish any U.S. policy that would carry through to other countries such as Syria. And it may have made it more difficult to get China and Russia on board such international alliances again.

"It's premature to declare victory here," said Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If Libya turns out to be a unified, semi-representative government, then we can uncork the champagne. If, on the other hand, removing Gadhafi leads to a failed state, then I don't think we will be looking at this as a success."

Obama at the outset signaled that he wanted to stop Gadhafi as he marched toward the rebellious city of Benghazi with the intent to slaughter the Libyans caught up in the fervor of the Arab Spring.

Mindful of a wary American public, he supported a limited role for the U.S. He said the U.S. would support a NATO-enforced air mission to stop Gadhafi from slaughtering his own people. It would take days, not weeks, he said in March. And he would never commit U.S. troops to the ground in Libya, he vowed.

"This was a strategy that was designed by the White House to suit domestic political needs," Danin said, "to address what it perceived as a potential human catastrophe and square the circle with limited U.S. involvement. Even then, the polling did not suggest a great deal of support for this. People don't care about this."

Though it took months, not days, the Libyan rebels eventually did fight their way into Tripoli this weekend, cornering Gadhafi.

"It's early to make a final assessment of the allied approach to Libya," said Mark Quarterman, senior adviser and director of the Program on Crisis Conflict and Cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Having said that ... it appears that the approach taken by President Obama, by NATO and by the U.N. Security Council seems to have borne fruit."

Significantly, no U.S. lives were lost. Obama pledged anew Monday that no U.S. troops will go into Libya.

"He's done all right as far as it goes," said Danin. "We've seen the ambivalence the president feels about this operation projected throughout."

Obama's success, if it is his, may be limited. In Libya, it may be limited to the toppling of Gadhafi, with the future of the country unknown. And in North Africa and the Middle East, it may have been a one-time-only exercise that cannot be repeated in a place such as Syria, where another dictator is slaughtering his own people.

One reason lies in the way the United States and others got the U.N. Security Council to back action against Gadhafi — without drawing the usual veto from China and Russia.

They did it by making sure the U.N. resolution narrowly authorized the humanitarian mission of stopping Gadhafi from killing his people. It did not call for ousting him. Obama did call for Gadhafi's ouster, but he insisted his stand was aside from the U.N.-sanctioned military mission.

"Some of the parties like Russia, China, maybe some of the middleweight countries, will be very reluctant to sign up to such a resolution in the future because they believe there was a bait and switch here," said Danin. "If Libya was not really a vital interest, what happens when we have to address a greater interest in the area, such as Syria? ... It may be difficult, if not impossible."

Politically, one potential political benefit for Obama would be a possible drop in gasoline prices. But beyond that, don't expect any increase in Obama's dismal approval rating.

"He can claim he took the appropriate steps. It's a net plus for him. But he doesn't need any distraction from what he's trying to do domestically," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducts the McClatchy-Marist Poll.

Obama did enjoy a brief bounce in popularity after the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden on May 1.

Immediately before the killing, 46 percent of Americans approved of the way Obama was doing his job, according to the Gallup Poll. Within days, that number jumped to 52 percent. But within a month, it was back to 46 percent. And last week, it dropped to 39 percent, the first time it went below 40 percent.

"I don't think there's any long-term benefit other than saying he handles diplomacy well," said Miringoff. "It does not get him back to the mid-40s. It will have a minimal effect."

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