- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2011

President Obama’s decision to commit American forces to Libya appears to have helped oust the regime of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, but the second-guessing is unlikely to end as attention turns to the rebel forces and what role the U.S. will play in shaping a new government or keeping the peace.

Throughout a five-month-long NATO bombing campaign, Mr. Obama and other allies balked at the suggestion of sending in ground troops to help remove the longtime strongman. But as Col. Gadhafi’s final day in power appears to draw near, analysts cite a number of potential pitfalls, such as revenge killings or the emergence of another authoritarian government, that could pressure the coalition to take an active role in shepherding the North African country through its transition.

“As we move forward from this pivotal phase, the opposition should continue to take important steps to bring about a transition that is peaceful, inclusive and just,” Mr. Obama said in brief remarks from Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing with his family. “True justice will not come from reprisals and violence; it will come from reconciliation and a Libya that allows its citizens to determine their own destiny. In that effort, the United States will be a friend and a partner.”

Even if Mr. Obama holds firm to his opposition to ground troops, analysts say, the international community needs to keep a close eye on a post-Gadhafi Libya. The analysts note that Europe in particular has vital energy interests in the country.

“Anybody who told the president of the United States that he could initiate military action in Libya and then walk away from it quickly was making a serious mistake,” Daniel Serwer, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, told reporters on a conference call. “It just doesn’t work that way, and I think there’s going to be some hard choices to be made.”

LOOKING AHEAD: President Obama says the U.S. will be "a friend and a partner" to a Gadhafi-free Libya. (Associated Press)
LOOKING AHEAD: President Obama says the U.S. will be “a friend and ... more >

Beyond looting and retaliation, Mr. Serwer said, adverse outcomes could include factionalization along tribal or geographic lines or the rise of another autocratic regime. Perhaps worse, he said, would be a situation similar to that of Iraq after the fall of strongman Saddam Hussein, in which regime loyalists carried out a premeditated plan to dismantle the state.

Fighting between the rebels and Gadhafi loyalists continued to rage Monday throughout Tripoli, Libya’s capital and the stronghold of the regime. Even as anti-Gadhafi forces claim to control most of the city, the notorious leader’s whereabouts were unknown as of Monday evening.

The rebels made a breakthrough this weekend after arduous fighting that bordered on a stalemate, with anti-Gadhafi forces sometimes capturing a territory only to lose it days later. The stalemate prompted some to call on Mr. Obama and other leaders to ratchet up NATO pressure, even though the U.N.-authorized no-fly zone didn’t call for Col. Gadhafi’s removal.

“Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Gadhafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a statement Sunday.

Others criticized intervention in the first place. In the House, several attempts were made to try to cut off funding for some U.S. operations in Libya. Although most House members opposed the president’s policy, no consensus emerged on how to tie his hands — leaving him to pursue the conflict.

Still, Mr. Obama has had to walk a fine line. While he consistently defended the NATO operation — which started March 19 — and maintained that the rebels had momentum on their side, his administration did not officially recognize the rebel-backed National Transitional Council until mid-July, giving them access to billions of dollars worth of frozen regime assets.

The intervention also has complicated the White House position on conflicts elsewhere.

Mr. Obama faces questions about why he only last week called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to step down and why the U.S. and its allies don’t pursue a resolution for a no-fly zone in that country, where the government is massacring pro-democracy demonstrators, according to media reports.

Robert Danin, a senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, warned that NATO’s conduct during the Libya operation renders similar internationally sanctioned operations less likely in the future.

Members of the U.N. Security Council, specifically China and Russia, are “going to be very reluctant to sign up for such a resolution in the future because they believe there was a bait-and-switch here,” Mr. Danin said. “They were brought in for a humanitarian situation,” and a regime change ended up taking place.

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