Obama foreign policy successes? Not Libya

Abe Greenwald has written an important article for Commentary called “He’s Made It Worse: Obama’s Middle East.” We’ve already seen how Obama made it worse in Egypt. Today, we focus on Greenwald’s discussion of Libya.

The Arab upheaval, unanticipated by Obama, hit Libya in the form of an armed insurrection against the Qaddifi regime. When Qaddifi quickly grabbed the upper-hand, the rebels appealed to the West for help to avoid a massacre.

Obama’s instinct was to stay out of the conflict, given the apparent absence of any compelling U.S. interest in Libya. But the pressure to become involved was substantial. Secretary of State Clinton favored intervention. European allies, especially France, were determined to intervene. And Obama himself wanted to avoid a humanitarian crisis.

Eventually, Obama was, in Greenwald’s words, “shamed” into following the Europeans’ lead. And once involved, our military played a decisive role in ousting Qaddafi.

Libya had presented Obama with a difficult decision. I don’t fault him for being reluctant to intervene; nor do I blame for ultimately joining the fight.

It was after Qaddifi fell that Obama blundered badly. Ignoring the lessons of Iraq, Obama declared, in essence, “mission accomplished” without thinking much, if at all, about what would follow. As Greenwald recounts:

[A]dministration supporters began to tout the Libya episode as a “new model” for American intervention. Unlike the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it had been low-risk and required no boots on the ground. The approval of the Arab League lent it regional legitimacy, and the approval of the French somehow translated into global legitimacy (even though the Germans, Russians, Chinese, and others disapproved).

But the absence of boots on the ground proved fatal in the aftermath of Qadaffi’s overthrow:

As there was no sufficient presence on the ground to look after the dictator’s abandoned arsenal, a terrorist weapons bazaar sprouted up that not only armed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Hamas in Gaza, but also changed the course of a rebel war in Mali (ironically prompting French intervention there as well). A UN report documented internationally smuggled Libyan weapons, including “rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with antiaircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives (Semtex), and light antiaircraft artillery (light-caliber bi-tubes) mounted on vehicles.”

The chickens of Obama’s neither-in-nor-out approach came home to roost in Benghazi. Our diplomats were present after others had fled, but not sufficiently protected. They were sitting ducks for the terrorists who sprouted up in the power vacuum we had helped create.

As Greenwald concludes, “neither in nor out, neither leading nor following, in Libya America sounded an uncertain note to allies and offered a new model of superpower ambivalence.”

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