by Jules Witcover
Unlike the death of
From the start, the initiative for military response to Gadhafi's use of force to suppress the Libyan revolution came from the British and French. Obama somewhat belatedly joined in a limited and more indirect way, in the guise of preventing, through air power, a massacre of the Libyan people on the ground.
Vowing from the outset that no American troops would be deployed on the ground, Obama kept his word. However, he subsequently permitted use of unmanned drone aircraft to hit targets, one of which may or may not have been a vehicle in which Gadhafi was riding. All in all, however, the U.S. involvement was a clear pivot from the dominantly unilateral foreign policy of the previous administration.
Obama's response in Libya was an important signal to the world community that, after the adventurism that led the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, the country had returned to reliance on the collective action that guided it through World War II and the Cold War. While an American presence continues in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama is finally taking steps to disengage from military involvement in both places.
If Obama could be faulted in his response to the Libyan episode, it was in his transparent fiction that the American role did not constitute hostile action triggering a key provision of the War Powers Act. Before initiating his limited action, he should have sought agreement from
Nevertheless, the American president put the nation on a more defensible basis for its Libyan involvement by citing clearly visible humanitarian grounds, as Gadhafi forces pummeled the civilian population. Compared to the faulty or trumped-up rationale for invading Iraq -- those weapons of mass destruction that weren't there -- the case for the limited U.S. engagement of air power was never seriously challenged here.
In retrospect, Obama was prudent in recognizing the unique circumstances in the Libyan episode that justified "leading from behind." The engagement was indeed set in motion by other allies in a situation in which it would have been hard to argue that American vital interests were involved.
Also, the military challenge was one in which the most important and significant American role was the supply of technology rather than manpower. The drawn-out fight between the insurgents and the Gadhafi forces probably cost American taxpayers several billion dollars in support efforts. But the fact that Obama could say at the end that no American lives were lost made his task of defending the U.S. involvement much easier at home.
Proponents of the argument advanced by "the Vulcans" of the previous administration, that America must maintain such obvious military superiority over all other nations that none will even try to match it, are likely to deplore Obama's response to the Libyan affair. They will cite it as a rollback from world leadership and a prelude to dangerous future cuts in defense spending.
But for all such contentions, the lingering economic crisis at home has made a serious re-examination of the huge American defense budget imperative. The first crack at it is being taken by the Congressional super committee now struggling to find deep cuts in both domestic and military spending. If it fails to propose the mandated
The task for Obama then will be to argue that the limited use of U.S. military power in Libya does not materially diminish the American obligation and intent to provide leadership in fighting threats to peace and freedom around the world. But he can also now offer an example of how the burden can be effectively shared with partner nations, as was the case before Uncle Sam became the world's sole superpower.
"Obama Sets Precedent with Role in Getting Gadhafi"