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.

Regardless, with Libya seemingly on the right track for now, many have already called the campaign evidence of a clear Obama doctrine. To the contrary: Qaddafi's ouster will not be the signature accomplishment of a president who has somehow found a new and successful approach toward greater multilateralism and burden sharing.

Libya was a special case. For one, President Barack Obama could be patient and deferential to the Europeans there, because Libya is a second-tier regional player and of limited strategic value to the United States.

Second, during the five months of the military campaign, U.S. economic woes became so severe that the importance of the Libya issue essentially disappeared from public view. Continued killing in Syria, unrest in Yemen, and major uncertainty in Egypt reinforce this point. All of these countries are probably more important in terms of U.S. interests, yet Obama has made no moves to get involved.

Third, Libya's geography was extremely conducive to waging an airpower campaign. The country's demographics, with different tribes concentrated in separate cities along the coast and within reach of numerous NATO airfields, are not a luxury the United States will often enjoy.

Fourth, Qaddafi was so unpopular among Arabs that, even given Obama's low popularity in the Arab world today, NATO could find allies there to lend the operation legitimacy.

Finally, Obama's taking a secondary role in a humanitarian intervention is actually no great breakthrough in the annals of U.S. foreign policy. Be it Somalia, Rwanda, or another case, Washington has tended to try to minimize its role over the years. Obama played the supporting role better than U.S. presidents usually do. He deserves credit for that but not as much for novelty or creativeness.

So, yes, so far, so good in Libya. Still, I am not sure that the United States' momentary engagement with Libya will mean much in terms of its future endeavors at home and abroad. Libya was a success but a provisional and limited one to date.

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  • MICHAEL O'HANLON is the Director of Research and a Senior Fellow of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.
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