Why Obama Was Right on Libya and bin Laden and Wrong on Afghanistan

The fall of Moammar Gaddafi and victory by the Libyan protesters-turned-rebels vindicates President Barack Obama's policy. What do his successes with Libya, and with the take-down of Osama bin Laden, and the failures of his Afghanistan policy, tell us?

** Libya isn't Iraq, or Vietnam. It's Kosovo.

Want to know why it took so long for decades long dictator Moammar Gaddafi to be ousted? Because the US "led from behind," as one unnamed Obama advisor put it. A poor phrase, but a good idea, in that it required the European and Arab countries who most wanted to squelch Gaddafi to pick up the slack in the air and with key support, and the Libyan rebels to win themselves on the ground.

It's completely unlike Iraq, or Vietnam, despite the remarkably sloppy thinking of many critics. What it is like is the Kosovo War of 1999, in which NATO engaged in an air war against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevich, then busily and brutally "ethnic cleansing" Kosovo. Or, actually, it's Kosovo-minus, in that the US played by far the leading role in Kosovo, flying by far the most missions, unlike the case with Libya.

This bloodcurdling speech by longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, which I listened to live on Al Jazeera on March 17th, proved to be one of the classic political backfires. After Gaddafi pledged to put his remaining opponents in Benghazi to the sword, the UN Security Council approved an unprecedented mulilateral military intervention in Libya.

With the US taking the lead in Kosovo, at the direction of President Bill Clinton, Milosevich took only two-and-a-half months to decide to give up. (At the time, many complained about how long it was taking.) Gaddafi, a tougher nut to crack, lasted five months before being driven from his famed Tripoli compound.

Few today, even among the many who called Bill Clinton an "imperialist" for intervening in Kosovo with air power only, would argue that Milosevich and his ethnic cleansing operations should not have been stopped.

** Multilateral action can work. By "leading from behind," Obama forced the French, the British, other NATO members, some Gulf Arab states, and others to step up and do more rather than rely on the Americans. If there is to be any future for humanitarian intervention, that had to be.

And there needs to be some future for humanitarian intervention. The world can be a very ugly place. One act of intervention may serve to dissuade other tyrants from acts they might otherwise undertake.

America can't afford to intervene heavily around the world, even when it's finally free of Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea of the US as the world's policeman, or, more accurately, crusader rabbit, is passe. But it can afford to help, and to provide a unique value-added to joint efforts, as it has done in Libya, where the rebels are now proud members of the Arab League.

Just 16% of the sorties over Libya were flown by American aircraft; the French flew twice as many. But US forces provided the unique value-added that only the US could, in terms of establishing the no-fly zone by taking down Libyan air defenses and in terms of providing the sophisticated surveillance and intelligence and aerial refueling capacity that other nations don't have.

Of course, the tempo of US missions increased over the 12 days prior to the fall of Tripoli

But in the end, total American spending appears to be around a billion dollars, which is a rounding error in the Pentagon budget, a minuscule fraction of what is spent in Afghanistan or Iraq.

And the cost in American casualties? Zero. None amongst all the European and Arab forces involved, either.

** Supporting a strong popular force can work. The protests in Libya were not generated from Langley, Virginia. They were part and parcel of the awakening which has swept the Arab world, at first very much to the consternation of American national security officials, evidenced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's initial statements of faith in Hosni Mubarak.

As I pointed out early on, the Libyan rebels were in no way prepared to take on the Gaddafi regime when the "Brother Leader" decided to shut down his country's Arab Spring protests with deadly force. The rebels, as I wrote here on the Huffington Post in March, were a rabble. It took them a long time to get prepared, even after they were rescued from Gaddafi's promised massacre in Benghazi by the UN Security Council resolution in March.

And while it's clear they would never have won without having NATO as a de facto air force, it's also clear that Gaddafi would be sitting pretty still in Tripoli rather than somewhere on the run without the rebels coming together to fight for their freedom.

In Libya, there was a genuine revolution that could succeed with assistance. That was not the case in Iraq. And was only the case in the north of Afghanistan.

** There are many evils in the world, but there are real limits to power.
Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy. But he wasn't involved in 9/11 and getting rid of him has proved to be one of the biggest mistakes in American history, for many reasons.

It would be nice to establish a functioning, modern democracy in Afghanistan, especially given the extraordinarily reactionary ways of the Taliban, who relegate women to the 16th century. It's not going to happen. I've written at length, and for a long time, about Obama's mistaken embrace of big-time nation-building in one of the most difficult environments for such on the planet. You can click on the archive below.

It was appropriate to intervene in Afghanistan after 9/11 to eliminate Al Qaeda's bases and disrupt its ability to pursue additional attacks. But our presence in Afghanistan is far too big and intrusive for our much more limited objective of denying it as a base for organized, transnational jihadism.

Why Obama has chosen this foolish path is a matter for another time. But the fact that he has serves to illustrate, once again, the dangers of massive, ongoing, largely unilateral intervention.

** Unilateral action can work, when it is discrete, decisive, and limited.
In contrast to the huge, cumbersome, and frankly unintelligent ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan is the Osama bin Laden operation. There Obama succeeded where George W. Bush and Dick Cheney famously failed.

Obama has done exactly what he promised in prosecuting operations against Al Qaeda. He was criticized by the Bush/Cheney Administration, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton for his promise to go after bin Laden and other Al Qaeda and jihadist leaders in Pakistan and elsewhere. But he has done it, and it has worked.

The trick, of course, is to take down jihadist leaders and cadre who are unremitting enemies without stimulating the growth of jihadism in backlash, as the massive ongoing interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have done.

It's a balancing act, one which ultimately must turn on decent relations with the Islamic world as a whole.

"Leading from behind" in Libya, where America has virtually no oil interests and in which the new International Contact Group on Libya of which America is a part can help the Libyan people realize some of the aspirations implicit in the great Arab awakening, is part of achieving those better relations.