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Obama's Libya strategy may be vindicated

Aug. 22, 2011 - 08:51PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 22, 2011 - 08:51PM  |  
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WASHINGTON — President Obama was in Brazil five months ago when he sent U.S. troops into a third war zone in Libya. Today, he's in Martha's Vineyard as that effort approaches its end.

His distance from the corridors of power could serve as a metaphor for his Libya policy: not too far away to be involved, but not directing the action.

From the day in March when Obama announced a series of airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's forces to establish a no-fly zone, his strategy has been to set the table for NATO and European allies, and then provide refueling, intelligence and surveillance rather than bombing missions.

As a result, the administration can claim that its limited participation in the NATO-led effort is paying off. No Americans have perished in the 5-month-old military action. Gadhafi, as long desired by the White House, appears to be on the way out. And the United States does not own the aftermath.

"In the early days of this intervention, the United States provided the bulk of the firepower, and then our friends and allies stepped forward," Obama said from his vacation compound Monday. "All of this was done without putting a single U.S. troop on the ground."

Some Republicans in Congress and experts on the region question why it took so long, cost the United States nearly $1 billion and resulted in the deaths of so many Libyans to bring down one strongman. They note he had NATO, the European Union, Arab League, United Nations and others arrayed against him.

"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 air power," said Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who argued for a more full-throated U.S. effort.

But Obama, already saddled with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he inherited from a Republican administration, had no stomach for a third full-fledged war. By late spring, when it appeared Gadhafi was battling NATO forces to a stalemate, he preached patience.

"We understand the limits of what the military alone can achieve," he said in May during a trip to Great Britain. "Ultimately, this is going to be a slow, steady process."

Slow it was. What many experts thought might last weeks turned into months. The administration was challenged by Republicans to provide justification for a war they said needed congressional approval. The decline in Libya's oil exports even led Obama to tap into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve for 30 million gallons to help reduce gas prices.

And the challenges won't end even as Gadhafi's days in power appear numbered. Obama held two National Security Council conference calls Sunday and Monday to discuss what deputy spokesman Josh Earnest called "some possible future steps."

The president urged Gadhafi to relinquish power voluntarily and called on the Transitional National Council (TNC) to bring about a peaceful and inclusive transition. He said the United States would help with supplies and humanitarian aid, using some of the roughly $30 billion in assets from Gadhafi's regime that were frozen this year.

Experts on the region disagreed on whether the emerging outcome proves Obama right or not:

• Charles Kupchan, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, said the outcome "is definitely a feather in Obama's cap. To some extent, it vindicates his notion that the United States can afford to let others take the lead."

• Elliott Abrams, a former National Security Council official in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, says the limited U.S. effort caused the war to languish, at a cost of more Libyan lives. "We wanted to lead from behind," he said.

• Mark Quarterman, a former U.N. official at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it was important to let Libyan rebels take the lead in toppling their government. Had the United States taken a leading role, "I'm not sure if there would necessarily have been the international support behind it, and it could have in some ways weakened the TNC's case for the Libyan people liberating their own country," he said.

• James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, agreed it was important that Obama refused to let the U.S. play a lead role in the conflict. "We don't know what happens next," he said. "I'm glad America's in the back seat, not in the front seat driving this thing."

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