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Libya—Leading from Behind

The Arab Spring convulsions soon tossed Libya into turmoil. Like Egypt and Tunisia, Libya had long been ruled by a dictatorial regime. The North African country had only recently moved from outright pariah status to a marginally acceptable regime by the West. After Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi seized power in 1969 from the monarchy, he turned the former Italian colony into a sponsor of terrorism and a procurer of WMD. Libya’s oil wealth helped insulate the Mediterranean nation from American- orchestrated UN sanctions. Qaddafi retaliated in ways similar to other rogue states against UN embargoes and censure. He allied with Moscow from which Libyan military forces gained access to up-to-date weapons. He offered sanctuaries and funds for such notorious terrorists as Abu Nidal.

Colonel Qaddafi’s provocative actions and pursuit of chemical and nuclear weapons almost foreordained that he would cross swords with the United States.13 But he also collided with the US Navy over Libya’s exclusive claims to the Gulf of Sidra off the Libyan coast during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. President Reagan countered, and US warplanes shot down two of the Libyan jets in 1981. The Reagan White House also ordered an airstrike that nearly killed Qaddafi in retaliation for a Libyan- instigated bombing in a Berlin disco.

Later, during President George H.W. Bush’s tenure, Qaddafi struck back by blowing up Pan Am flight 103 over the Scottish village of

Lockerbie in December 1989. The New York City-bound plane exploded after leaving London, killing all 259 persons on board and 11 villagers on the ground. Bush replied with a series of UN economic and travel sanctions against Libya when Tripoli refused to hand over two Libyan agents who were indicted in American and British courts. Next, Qaddafi chased after chemical arms, which he used in a conflict with Chad. Finally, he acquired nuclear weapons components by relying on the notorious A.Q. Khan’s Pakistani black market network. Economic sanctions, political isolation, and, perhaps, the fear that he might suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein after the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq, prompted Qaddafi to have second thoughts. Unique among rogue states, Libya mended its ways as it groped for a way out of the political cold. Washington and other governments oversaw the dismantling of Qaddafi’s WMD facilities in the early 2000s. In time, the international community eased its sanction regime, allowing for greater Tripoli oil sales.

None of Qaddafi’s accommodations saved his murderous and corrupt rule from the Arab Spring revolt. Qaddafi, his villainous sons, and their henchmen fought back fiercely against their opponents.14 The Hobbesian conflict descended into a shooting civil war pitting militias, regions, and tribes against one another. Outsiders intruded into the Libyan fighting, unlike their hands-off behavior during the popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. Qatar aided the rebels by providing arms and training. The British committed military and intelligence officials to help the opposition fighters with organizational and logistical tasks. France and Britain, in addition, called for international intercession to safeguard the Libyan population against the massacring dictatorship.15 Prominent figures from both major American political parties clamored for action against Colonel Qaddafi.

America’s role in Libya was hesitant and circumscribed from the beginning of the anti-Qaddafi revolt. President Obama was cool to talk of military intervention, although some of his closest aides, such as Hillary Clinton, felt a need to intervene “to protect civilians and prevent a massacre.”16 Robert Gates, the Republican holdover as secretary of defense, adamantly opposed no-fly zones over Libya as a means to protect the rebels.17 He viewed them as just the first steps toward greater involvement.18 Thus, Secretary Gates stoutly resisted any incursions.19 The main impediment to any form of intervention, nonetheless, came from the commander-in-chief himself. His spokesmen took pains to explain that entering a third conflict in the Middle East was not in the country’s best interests. He feared that air exclusionary spheres would drag America deeper into the Libyan imbroglio so as to retrieve an inconclusive venture.20 In early March, the president did voice demands that the embattled Libyan leader “step down from power and leave” otherwise the United States would review options to end the bloodshed.21

Along with calls for involvement from major NATO allies, there came an unusual request from an unexpected quarter. The Arab League asked the UN Security Council to impose a no-flight zone over Libya in hopes of preventing Qaddafi’s savagery against his own people. The 22-nation Arab League usually decried Western interference in the Middle East. The regional bloc’s invitation refuted Russian and Chinese objections to an American-led intervention. Obama officials dismissed the Arab League’s endorsement without its active participation in some tangible form.22

The United States and other major powers could invoke the 2005 UN doctrine, which conferred the right and obligation to take up a protective mantle for at-risk populations. That concept outlined as the “responsibility to protect,” nicknamed R2P, loomed in the background as Libya descended into the abyss. This humanitarian doctrine dated from the delayed Bosnian intervention and, more so, the Clinton administration’s washing its hands during the Rwandan genocide, when America and other countries stood aside in 1994 as the Hutu community massacred the Tutsi people. The Obama government was loath to enter a third regional fight, whatever the stipulations of R2P.23

Bowing finally to the reality of a human tragedy in Libya, Washington reluctantly joined nine other governments in the passage of UN Resolution 1973 which authorized all necessary measures to protect civilians as well as a no-fly zone over the country. The parties invoked “the responsibility to protect” to justify their decision. Even while voting for the authorizing resolution, the United States assumed none of its typical leadership in the implementation. Indeed, President Obama speaking in the White House’s East room depicted American tasks as merely “shaping” and “enabling operations.” He made it plain that the “United States is not going to deploy ground troops in Libya.” Obama officials added that the US actions included airstrikes to take down Libyan air defenses along with American command-and-control functions to enable bombing flights by NATO partners and United Arab Emirates aircraft.24 By spring 2011, Qaddafi’s relentless siege of the rebel’s stronghold in Benghazi appeared unstoppable, signaling an impending bloodbath for its defenders.

These realties on the ground redefined Obama administration’s calculations. Its foreign policy team now pushed for the UN to authorize military action to repel Qaddafi’s tank-led advances on the rebel’s Benghazi bastion.25 Washington’s urgings carried the day in the Security Council, when on March 17 it authorized member nations to take “all necessary measures” (meaning military operations) to protect Libyan civilians. Once again, the principle opponents—Russia, China, and Germany—abstained, which enabled the resolution to pass. Later when allied bombing shifted from noncombatant protection to regime change, Moscow denounced this new mission as unwarranted and perfidious American behavior. Afterward, Vladimir Putin expressed his lack of trust in Washington’s official word. The Russian president was “horrified by the death of Muammar al Qaddafi and considered Russia betrayed.”26 Years later, Russian officials circled back to their UN abstention on Libya. They regarded themselves duped by the Libyan incident and resolved to never again be snookered by Washington.27

American leadership and martial power seemed abundantly forthcoming at the start of Operation Odyssey Dawn. US ships unleashed salvos of Tomahawk missiles to take down the Libyan air defenses. Then, other NATO countries joined the fray with aerial bombing runs against forces loyal to Qaddafi. Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates contributed aircraft to the patrolling mission. Toward the end of March, nevertheless, the United States announced a subordinate role to NATO’s armed patrols in the Libyan skies. The Atlantic alliance agreed to lead the aerial operation five days after it commenced.28 Speaking at the National Defense University, Obama informed the American people: “the United States will play a supporting role” in NATO’s mission to protect the Libyan people from Qaddafi. He spelled out these support roles as “including intelligence, logistical support, search-and-rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications.”29

The handoff fell well short of eliminating all American assistance such as airborne refueling tankers, surveillance planes, and other advance logistical services. But officially, America was not leading. In his national address, Obama outlined his strategy only to end the Libyan dictator’s deadly attack on Benghazi, not a regime-change mission. He warned that “if we try to overthrow Qaddafi by force.... We would likely have to put U.S. troops on the ground.” The president went on to outline his foreign policy philosophy that governed his decision: “We went down that road in Iraq.” He added: “regime change there [Iraq] took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars.” In his judgment, this was not a prescription that America could afford again.30

“Leading from behind” was how a staffer on Obama’s National Security Council memorably characterized the limited US role in the Libyan military intervention.31 Rather than challenging this often-mocked phrase, Barack Obama amplified the three-word depiction of his handling of the Libyan crisis. He explained: “Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well.”32 NATO’s Allied Joint Forces Command in Naples took over management of the no-fly zone and air operations to protect Libyan citizens under the renamed Operation United Protector on March 25, 2011.

What accounts for the sudden step back by the United States during the UN’s Libyan incursion? In reality, the plan for the cutback in America’s commitment existed before the onset of Odyssey Dawn. President Obama went along with the British and French military proposal with strings attached. Once the air campaign was up and running, the White House insisted on a turnover of leadership unless the aerial operation required some unique American capability. The United States did handle about 75 percent of the refueling of allied aircraft, provided most of the reconnaissance, and exceeded others in the number of sorties. America also supplied munitions and drones to European states when they depleted their inventories. Yet, the impetus for the Libyan enterprise came from Paris and London. Before a European audience, Hillary Clinton correctly summed up the administration’s handling of Libya: “We did not lead this.”33

Perceptions of Obama’s reluctance to engage wholeheartedly in armed enterprises dropped off the screen of his political opponents in light of Osama bin Laden’s death in Pakistan at the hands of US Navy SEALs on May 2. Taking the arch-terrorist off the battlefield, by a risky helicopter raid, recast President Obama’s image as bold commander-in-chief, just as detractors decried his “passivity in the Middle East” during the Arab Spring.34 The assault on bin Laden’s terrorist lair in Abbottabad gave the president a boost in the polls. Days after the dramatic SEAL operation, his job approval rating shot to 57 percent, up from 46 percent a month earlier.35

Bin Laden’s death masked the fact that even the White House’s part in this spectacular operation had been marked by its characteristic hesitation and reluctance. One account noted the president’s “paralyzing indecision, political calculation” prior to authorizing the mission. According to officials directly involved, “the president canceled the mission three times in 2011 alone and delayed it throughout 2010.”36 Part of this indecision can be explained by Barack Obama’s own deeply held retrenchment policy.37 Another part of the explanation stems from the knowledge that influenced all White House occupants since Jimmy Carter’s failed hostage-rescue raid to free 52 American diplomats held by Iranian “students” after the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran. That doomed effort contributed to Carter’s lost reelection bid in 1980.

The master terrorist’s death contributed to the narrative that the al Qaeda network was now on the ropes—a view which the administration promoted as the national election neared. A year after the SEAL operation, the president spoke from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Too prematurely, the commander-in-chief perceived the end of the terrorist threat, when he proclaimed: “The goal that I set—to defeat al Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild—is now within our reach.”38 Al Qaeda enjoyed something of a second life, albeit through a splinter movement in the Levant two years after the president spoke of its near-defeat, as will be subsequently related.

Washington conducted the Libyan mission in a manner to spare the United States dollars and casualties. It had much less to do with enhancing the Arab Spring prospects for the birth of democracies.39 The administrations desired to maintain sound relations with its NATO allies, particularly France and Britain—the leading lights of the anti-Qaddafi attack. After Qaddafi’s shooting death, the United Protector campaign lingered on until October 31, the date agreed upon by the Security Council to terminate the mandate for NATO’s military action. Standing up a democratic government enjoyed only moderate patronage from the Obama government.40 The 19-nation intervention accomplished its regime-change goal without allied casualties. As such, Washington touted it as a “model intervention.”41

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