Libya and the Obama Doctrine

How the United States Won Ugly

As of this writing, the Obama administration's Libya policy appears to have been successful. The combination of targeted airpower, a gradual tightening of the economic and legal nooses around the necks of Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi and his cohorts, diplomatic engagement with the Libyan opposition, and quiet efforts (mostly by Europeans) to work militarily with that opposition ultimately paid off.

This is, of course, a provisional judgment. If fighting rages on in Tripoli for an extended time, the basic humanitarian objectives of the original mission could be compromised. So could the prospects for reconciliation once the dust settles. Prolonged violence will make it harder for the former antagonists to form a workable and stable coalition to build a new Libya. In the end, this could be a victory -- but an ugly one, as I wrote in March ("Winning Ugly in Libya").

In that article, I compared the Libya case to another ugly win more than a decade ago: NATO's in Kosovo. In that conflict, the postwar challenge was in many ways easier than what the West faces in Libya. The Serbian leadership remained intact, and Kosovo's liberation force was generally cohesive. There was also no particular need for the two sides to reconcile; Kosovo became a haven for ethnic Albanians, Serbia remained one for Serbs. Meanwhile, NATO and the United States were presumably prepared to resume operations there if Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic attacked Kosovo again.

In contrast, many of Libya's tribes are still friendly to Qaddafi yet will need to be included in a future government. Leaving them out of the process could lead to factionalism, civil war, and even terrorism. And so far, NATO has no plans to deploy ground troops to Libya, although some, including Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Max Boot, have suggested that it be willing to do so. Even if it did, such a force would only be to the good if the United States played a modest role in it and Arab -- or at least Muslim-majority -- countries sent troops as well.

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