Steve Chapman

For a president blanketed in gloom, the rebel victory in Libya comes as a welcome ray of sunshine. It took a lot longer than expected, but Barack Obama managed to help bring about the downfall of Moammar Gadhafi. Having avoided the danger of defeat, he now has to worry only about something equally scary: the perils of victory.

The triumph, whole or partial, does not exactly vindicate his decision to enter the fight. It was a needless war that put Americans in harm's way, cost nearly a billion dollars and exposed Libya to the possibility of disastrous turmoil in the aftermath.

Not only that, but it could still go tragically awry. When we intervened in Libya, we did so without much knowledge or understanding of the society. For all we know, the country could fall into the hands of our enemies.

As in Iraq, we took it upon ourselves to begin the transformation of another country with barely a clue where it might lead. In some ways, this enterprise resembles the war that Obama gained stature by opposing: George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.

Each was a war of choice, not a response to attack. Just as Bush raised the imaginary specter of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, Obama inflated the dubious claim that we had to prevent Gadhafi from carrying out genocide.

By some measures, Obama's war was less excusable. In going after Saddam, Bush at least could claim to be defusing an ongoing threat to our allies, in a vital region. But Gadhafi had stopped his sponsorship of terrorism, abandoned his nuclear quest and generally tried to become a respectable world citizen.

That raises a point Obama may not want to stress. If you're a merciless despot, pondering the fate of your colleagues, there is only one conclusion to draw: Get nukes, and get them now.

Saddam, the Taliban and Gadhafi, none of whom had doomsday weapons, have all been evicted by foreign military forces. North Korea's Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, sleeps soundly in the bosom of his atomic arsenal. You think President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran can't add two and two?

Obama also managed the Herculean feat of outdoing Bush in his expansion of executive power. Before invading Iraq, Bush got Congress to approve a joint resolution of support. Before attacking Libya, Obama gave Congress the back of his hand.

Nor did he change his approach later. He took the outlandish position that he didn't need to abide by the War Powers Resolution -- which says that within 60 days of dispatching American forces, the president must get congressional authorization or bring them home.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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