Victory in Libya

Posted: Aug 25, 2011 12:01 AM

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.

Obama could have easily gotten Congress to consent, but he said he didn't have to, because our forces were not taking part in "hostilities." Never mind those drones launching missiles against Libya targets. His own attorney general and other administration lawyers told Obama the war was illegal. He didn't care.

But if Obama was more reckless than Bush about the law, he was more prudent about the mission. The saving grace of this war was minimalism: The United States performed only a supporting role, took no casualties and categorically ruled out ground troops. Obama put the heaviest burden on our allies, and they accepted it.

His approach brings to mind the 1999 Kosovo war, when President Bill Clinton spent 11 weeks bombing Serbia before finally prevailing. It was low-risk, brief and successful. As in Libya, had we failed, we could have bailed out with no major damage.

Contrast that with Iraq, which all along held out the cruel prospect of chaos, civil war, endless occupation and ruinous expense -- which is why President George H.W. Bush chose not to march to Baghdad in the first Iraq war.

Most Americans, it's safe to assume, have no regrets about the Libya war. When it comes to Iraq, they are more apt to echo the country singer Toby Keith's musical lament: "I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

As it is, American law has been trampled, large sums of money have been torched and our habit of going to war at a moment's notice has been reinforced. But at least we won't have troops fighting Libya for years to come. Obama didn't avoid all the bad choices available to him there. Just the worst one.