Almost six months to the day after he committed U.S. troops to aid Libya’s rebels, President Obama on Tuesday declared his policy a success and told the United Nations its strategy of collective sanctions, military protection and humanitarian assistance saved thousands of lives, ousted a bad regime and should serve as a model for future world hot spots.
“This is how the international community should work in the 21st century — more nations bearing the responsibility and costs of meeting global challenges,” Mr. Obama said. “Indeed, it is the very purpose of this United Nations. So every nation represented here today can take pride in the innocent lives we saved and in helping Libyans reclaim their country. It was the right thing to do.”
Even as he was meeting at the U.N., though, Mr. Obama’s defense secretary told reporters he deployed more American troops to Tripoli to secure U.S. property; ousted leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi taunted the newly installed government by videotape; and the country’s temporary leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, president of the National Transitional Council, said additional humanitarian assistance would be needed to bolster the troubled country.
Now the post-mortem evaluation of the war begins, and analysts questioned whether Mr. Obama could have acted more forcefully, potentially speeding Col. Gadhafi’s ouster, and whether the prolonged fight may have made it tougher to secure the regime’s weapons. There are reports that anti-aircraft missiles have gone missing.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, said they hoped the experience has soured the country on similar intervention in the future.
“If President Obama is declaring that Libya is a success, it would serve him well to look back at the challenge that President Bush faced when he declared ‘mission accomplished’ in Iraq,” said Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat. “I also think that any interventionism model which ignores the Constitution and ignores the budget realities of the United States is doomed.”
The conflict claimed the lives of 30,000 Libyans and injured 50,000, the transition government said this month. The cost of American efforts, meanwhile, were slated to total about $1 billion in operations costs and munitions.
The U.S. role began March 19 when American planes led a NATO effort to establish a no-fly zone. Mr. Obama at the time pointed to the call by Arab countries for help, as well as a U.N. mandate to protect civilians, as evidence of the world’s resolve.
The U.S. eventually transferred control of the no-fly zone to NATO, though American forces continued to provide key capabilities.
Six months later, the success of the military side of the operation is unquestioned in Washington, but the other implications are being hotly debated.
From the start, members of Congress questioned the president’s authority to commit troops without seeking Congress’ approval, and Mr. Kucinich led a group that sued, asking a court to rule against the deployment.
Efforts in the House to force him to curtail operations failed only because opponents couldn’t agree on how tough to write the limitations.
In the Senate, though, many lawmakers criticized him for not moving strenuously enough. The Senate was working on a resolution backing the president’s deployment when the fight over raising the debt limit distracted lawmakers and derailed those efforts.
Though the congressional stalemate left Mr. Obama with a free hand to pursue the war, the politics might have curtailed some options he otherwise could have pursued, said Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House intelligence committee.
“By putting it in that context, we limited pretty severely some other things and other capabilities we could have brought to bear, to the fight that I argue could have brought it to conclusion sooner, and protected our national security interests,” Mr. Rogers, a Michigan Republican, said at the American Enterprise Institute last week, arguing that it could have helped in particular to secure chemical weapons and anti-aircraft missiles in the former government’s arsenal.
The State Department is now deploying government contractors to help the new Libyan government track down weapons.
Mr. Obama and his team say there is no Libyan doctrine that could be applied to other cases, though at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Tuesday that NATO already has begun discussing how the Libya model might influence future operations.
“We are forever haunted by the atrocities that we did not prevent, and the lives that we did not save. But this time was different. This time, we, through the United Nations, found the courage and the collective will to act,” he said.
Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at AEI, said U.S. policy could have been more forceful at the beginning, which she said could have sped Col. Gadhafi’s exit. Instead, she said Mr. Obama benefited more from “dumb luck” than a coherent policy.
“The key question any time you look at a foreign policy success or failure is you ask yourself, is this rooted in policy and principle, or is this just dumb luck. And if the answer is the latter, that tells you nothing about the president, nothing about his leadership and nothing about what will happen going forward. That’s the problem with Obama,” she said.
Lawmakers who opposed the operation altogether said they, too, are confused about what sort of precedent has been set. Some on both sides have argued — not all of them approvingly — that the Libya model could shape U.S. policy toward Syria, where protesters are endangered by government forces.
Mr. Kucinich said he’s already seen signs of expansion of U.S. policy, pointing to a debate within the administration over whether American forces can direct lethal force at rank-and-file militants in places such as Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. is not at war but where it has an interest in the outcome of internal conflicts. The debate was reported last week in the New York Times.
Meanwhile, the court case challenging the president’s war powers is still proceeding, said Jonathan Turley, the law professor at George Washington University who is heading the legal effort.
In the past, courts have dismissed similar lawsuits when the underlying conflict was resolved, but Mr. Turley said he hopes the judge in this case will let the matter proceed. He said it’s time the courts provide some guidance on the issue, particularly since the same justifications for action in Libya could be used to intervene in other places such as Syria.
“We have committed to litigating this question as long and as far as necessary to fight for access to the federal courts,” Mr. Turley said.