Does Qaddafi’s death make the Libyan war a success?

posted at 12:05 pm on October 21, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

That’s certainly what the White House would like people to think.  Much of the media seems to agree, at least in some degree.  The New York Times says that the video of a beaten Moammar Qaddafi still alive at the time of his capture provided a “harrowing … vindication” of Barack Obama’s decision to push NATO into bombing Libya on behalf of the rebels:

For President Obama, the image of a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi offers vindication, however harrowing, of his intervention in Libya, where a reluctant commander in chief put strict limits on American military engagement and let NATO allies take the lead in backing the rebels.

Mr. Obama’s carefully calibrated response infuriated critics on the right and left, who blamed him either for ceding American leadership in a foreign conflict or for blundering into another Arab land without an exit strategy.

But with Colonel Qaddafi joining the lengthening list of tyrants and terrorists dispatched during the Obama presidency, even critics conceded a success for Mr. Obama’s approach to war — one that relies on collective, rather than unilateral, action; on surgical strikes rather than massive troop deployments.

First, the US hasn’t gone to war unilaterally since Grenada.  Both Afghanistan and Iraq were broadly collective military missions; Iraq had troops from dozens of countries on the ground in the invasion and in the later occupation.  Second, there is a great deal of question about just how “surgical” the NATO strikes in Tripoli and other heavily populated areas actually were.  We didn’t send troops, to be sure, but that allowed the fighting to continue for months on end — and Obama just sent 100 troops to Uganda as “advisors” in their civil war on behalf of a government that hasn’t held a fair election since the ruling junta seized power in 1986.

ABC is concerned that the war’s “success” will erode the War Powers Act that Obama completely ignored:

Does the success of the operation against Gadhafi change the minds of those who believe the War Powers Act was violated when the president did not seek congressional authorization for the deployment of military force? Not so much.

For supporters of the law the president still needed congressional authorization to continue operations 60 days after the deployment.

“The academics will debate this, but this will just further erode the War Powers Act,” says professor Sarah Kreps of Cornell University. “Congress had little leverage on what the president did.”

Both of these reports start from a perspective that the war actually improved matters in Libya.  However, that assumes facts not in evidence.  Getting rid of Qaddafi is only a success if what follows Qaddafi isn’t either another bloody tyrant, or worse, a terrorist regime ready to export radical Islamic jihad across North Africa and beyond.  NATO hopes that its intervention on behalf of the rebels will strengthen the democrats against the extremists, but one look at the mob that killed Qaddafi yesterday shows that the rebel forces aren’t high on discipline or the rule of law at the moment.  Since eastern Libya has long been a recruiting zone for al-Qaeda and other salafist terror groups, it’s not at all certain that NATO’s lack of boots on the ground will translate into influence, let alone success.

To paraphrase Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction, it’s a little early to be patting each others’ backs, and it may not even matter a lot who or what replaces Qaddafi in terms of long-term security.  My colleague at the Week, Daniel Larison, writes today that the long-term ramifications of the Libyan adventure will be a disaster for the West:

Contrary to the hope that Libya would provide a deterrent to regime violence elsewhere, the political fallout from the war has stalled any international response to Syria’s crackdown. By exceeding the U.N. mandate they received in March, the U.S. and its allies have poisoned emerging democratic powers such as India and Brazil against taking any action in other countries. Libya has confirmed every skeptic’s worst fears that in practice, the “responsibility to protect” is little more than a pretext for toppling vulnerable governments.

Equally troubling from an American perspective is the ease with which the current administration launched a war against a government that had abandoned its former hostility, renounced unconventional weapons and terrorism, and provided some degree of security cooperation to the U.S. Pariah states now have no incentive to negotiate similar deals with the U.S. and its allies, and they have clear incentives to acquire the means of deterring a future intervention. This reduces diplomatic and political options in coping with these states in the future and makes conflicts with some of them more likely.

Larison looks to recent history to predict the outcome of the successful rebellion in Libya:

When dictatorships are violently overthrown, their successor regimes tend to devolve into some form of authoritarian government. Political culture, weak institutions, and post-conflict disorder all make it unlikely that Libya will be that much freer in the years to come than it was under Gadhafi. As in Iraq, it is questionable whether the possible gains will be worth the real losses that have already been and will continue to be suffered. As in Kosovo, which is often wrongly held up as a model of “successful” intervention, the post-war regime is liable to be criminal and corrupt. Twenty years ago, the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia from the brutal dictatorship of Mengistu was an inspiring story that very soon degenerated into authoritarianism and war. There is no reason to think that Libya’s story will be all that different.

No, and the fact remains — as Larison points out — that we have fewer options in dealing with Syria, which represented more of a threat to Western interests than did Libya at the time, or Uganda now.  The jury is still out on this adventure, and there is ample reason to believe we will regret our intervention in the long run.

Update: My friend John Noonan reminded me on Twitter of the parable of the Zen master:

We’ll see.

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