Behind the welcome news from the shores of Tripoli that the Libyan rebels are winning and Muammar Gaddafi losing, what should we make of this nasty little war that has flashed across our TV screens? Aside from uncertainty about what comes next for Libya itself, what can we deduce about potential U.S. involvement in future such conflicts?
One thing that was different about this war was that United States did not jump in with both feet and try to take it over. We did not shoot first and ask questions later. On the contrary, the Obama administration resisted such suggestions from critics within its own ranks as well as from national security hawks such as Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman.
Another difference this time around was that our European allies in NATO, feeling their interests were threatened by the turmoil so close to home, pushed hard for a forceful intervention. Many also pressed for the United States to do most of the heavy lifting.
The U.S. administration declined to take that route yet again, to make this another mainly U.S. show. Though it supported the NATO goal – Gaddafi had to go – and agreed to join in the campaign to bring that about, it insisted that the European nations must directly affected take the lead after an initial bombing phase.
The United States contributed substantial air power, intelligence and its state-of-the-art command, control and communications systems. These were invaluable, in some cases unique, assets that our allies could not have marshaled on their own.
What the United States did not provide were boots on the ground. This time, to the extent NATO sent in any Special Forces or advisers, they were Europeans, not Americans. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Libyan rebels themselves.
Along with its air strikes and other military support measures, the United States used the carrots and sticks of diplomacy to increase pressure on Gaddafi and encourage the rebels. Billions of dollars in regime financial assets were frozen, for example, and U.S. diplomats helped rally support for disowning the Gaddafi regime and barring its representatives from international political forums. Economic help was promised to a new Libyan government.
The new model seems to have worked. Whatever the details about Gaddafi’s eventual fate, it seems clear the rebels have won. The United States helped bring about that favorable result without suffering any casualties. The financial cost to the United States was tiny – reportedly less than $1 billion — compared to the estimated 2 to 3 TRILLION that the Iraq War will ultimately cost American taxpayers.
Though there are diehards who would like the United States to continue to play the world’s policeman, most Americans do not want to pay the high costs in blood and treasure. They recognize that we can no longer afford it, that we overextended ourselves trying to take on that role, and that we have work to do at home that deserves priority.
That does not mean we can or should withdraw from the world. We continue to have worldwide political and economic interests that would be gravely harmed if we retreated into isolation. But we have many tools of statecraft other than all-in military interventions, as the Libyan action as well as the raid that got Osama bin Laden both illustrate. We also have friends and allies who have similar interests and so should be counted on to increasingly share the burdens.
If there’s an Obama Doctrine emerging, Libya is what it will look like. We’ll be engaged in trying to defuse crises and promote democratic outcomes, but we will be less inclined to try to do everything ourselves or dictate what others should do. Some might call this leading from behind. You might also call it common sense.
Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer. He now serves as diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict. He lives in Plymouth.