By Ajish P Joy
02 Sep. 2011
Libya was Barack Obama’s own little war — but he played his card deftly and without much bluster.
Libyan dictator Colonel Gaddafi seems to be on his way out, with the forces loyal to the rebel National Transitional Council in command of the capital city of Tripoli. The initial uprising against the Gaddafi government which started in February this year in the eastern city of Benghazi, became an international campaign with the intervention of the UN Security Council. The Council passed Resolution 1973, which permitted the use of force against the Gaddafi regime and also established a no-fly-zone in Libya. Soon after, NATO forces under the leadership of Britain, France and the United States launched air sorties in support of the rebel forces fighting against Gaddafi.
In the course of six months, the rebels managed to break down the defences of Gaddafi, entered Tripoli, and are now poised to take over the reins in Libya. However, the whereabouts of Gaddafi is still unknown and until some conclusive news about him is received, it may be difficult to believe that the battle for Libya is truly over.
In fact, on Thursday, the 42nd anniversary of the coup that toppled King Idris and brought him to power, Gaddafi sent an audio message in which he urged his loyalists to keep up their resistance. It could very well be his final act of bluster, but his hometown Sirte, along with Bani Walid and Sabha, are still resisting the rebel forces.
Though touted as a “European” war, the Libyan campaign would not have been possible without the active help and cooperation of the United States. President Barack Obama initially appeared to be reluctant in getting involved simultaneously in a third Muslim country. But there was substantial support for intervention from influential officials in Washington like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and the Director of the Office of Human Rights, Samantha Power.
The crux of the pro-intervention argument was based on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle which calls upon the international community to initiate collective action if “national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”. The Obama administration pointed towards the plight of Libyans, facing the wrath of a vengeful Gaddafi, to justify intervention which became the first unequivocal military enforcement of the R2P principle. During the course of the Libyan campaign, Obama codified R2P principle into an important foreign policy tool through the Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities (PSD-10). According to this document, “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States”.
While the R2P is a noble principle, it often clashes with the concept of sovereign rights of nation states. Moreover, its selective application raises uncomfortable questions for its practitioners like Barack Obama. For example, while Libya caught his attention, he chose to ignore the brutal suppression of protesters in Bahrain and continues to be oblivious to the situation in Syria, Sudan and Somalia. Such a policy could be termed pragmatic and there is also some merit in the argument that it is better to intervene at least selectively rather than not intervening anywhere at all. However, selective application of the R2P principle eventually corrodes its importance and effectiveness.
The Libyan intervention also introduced a new phrase “leading from behind” into the US policy parlance. Since Obama decided that after the initial phase of intervention, the leadership of the Libyan campaign will have to be shouldered by NATO, the American presence was less ubiquitous in Libya, unlike the other campaigns to which the US was a party. Obama also drew considerable flak from his Republican detractors and conservative commentators for giving up American leadership. Yet, the US, beneath the media radar, continued to be the most important cog in the Libyan war wheel.
According to Pentagon estimates, the US spent around $900 million for the war effort. While it chose not to send a super carrier to the Mediterranean, a dozen warships assisted the campaign. American air-tankers handled the refuelling of NATO jets while it supplied precision-air-munitions to the European air forces which ran short of them quickly. The entire air defence system of the NATO forces were managed by American AWACS aircraft, while critical intelligence was supplied by information from Predator drones and E8-C JSTARS. It goes without saying that without active American help the NATO forces would have been unable to sustain their campaign.
Therefore, the Libyan campaign was very much an American war though it conveyed a different impression because of the smart tactics employed by the Obama administration. Though the rebels have nearly taken control of Libya, Obama has not declared victory so far, perhaps keeping in mind the “Mission Accomplished” fiasco of George W Bush, after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. And there are a few points for him to ponder. Even as the news of the rebel victory is welcomed by the Americans, 55 per cent of them are still opposed to US involvement in Libya, a matter of concern for the president.
Similarly, debates about the legality of US campaign in Libya are still not over. Obama in fact chose not to seek Congressional approval for the Libyan campaign. He overruled the Office of Legal Counsel and Attorney General Eric Holder and stuck to the opinion that the limited US role did not necessitate the administration to acquire Congressional approval even though the Libyan mission turned out to be a sustained offensive operation.
On the foreign policy front, Gaddafi’s overthrow must have sent a message to anti-US regimes across the world that weapons of mass destruction is probably the safest bet to regime security. In a bizarre twist of fate, Gaddafi, who gave up his nuclear programme several years ago, is running for cover, while North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pays an official visit to Russia. Finally, Gaddafi is still at large and nobody can predict the maverick colonel’s next move.
Even assuming that Gaddafi is gone for good, Libya’s future still looks uncertain and the success of Libyan intervention depends on a peaceful and orderly transition in the country. However, if Libya becomes unstable, violent, or a fertile ground for radicals, it will raise questions about the wisdom of the entire enterprise.
The writer is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for International Relations, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi