In a week when the European crisis continued building, the White House chose publicly to focus on announcements about the end of wars. The death of Moammar Gadhafi was said to mark the end of the war in Libya, and excitement about a new democratic Libya abounded. Regarding Iraq, the White House transformed the refusal of the Iraqi government to permit U.S. troops to remain into a decision by Washington instead of an Iraqi rebuff.
Though in both cases there was an identical sense of “mission accomplished,” the matter was not nearly as clear-cut. The withdrawal from Iraq creates enormous strategic complexities rather than closure. While the complexities in Libya are real but hardly strategic, the two events share certain characteristics and are instructive.
Libya After Gadhafi
Let us begin with the lesser event, Gadhafi’s death. After seven months of NATO intervention, Gadhafi was killed. That it took so long for this to happen stands out, given that the intervention involved far more than airstrikes, including special operations forces on the ground targeting for airstrikes, training Libyan troops, managing logistics, overseeing communications and both planning and at times organizing and leading the Libyan insurgents in battle.
Perhaps this length of time resulted from a strategy designed to minimize casualties at the cost of prolonging the war. Alternatively, that it took seven months to achieve this goal might reflect the extent of the insurgents’ division, poor training and incompetence. Whatever the reason, the more important question is what NATO thinks it has accomplished with Gadhafi’s death, as satisfying as that death might be.