March 21, 2011

Does the World Belong in Libya's War?

President Barack Obama's decision to militarily intervene in Libya is already off to a good start. I say this as someone who has been deeply skeptical of intervention. I feared that the United States would wind up leading the effort and thus -- no matter how successful it turned out militarily -- it would commit our top policymakers to not only toppling Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi but to making Libya a semi-stable polity afterwards. Once we intervened, we would own the problem, in other words, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But at least in its initial phases, the optics have been far better than I expected. The United States does not seem to be out in front. The French and British are there with their air forces and navies full-bore with us. Not only have the Arab League and the United Nations supported the operation, but the Egyptian military is supplying the rebels in eastern Libya. The very slow and seemingly lackluster American leadership that the Obama administration is being criticized for by both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists may be precisely what will keep us from owning the mission -- and that lack of ownership is an insurance policy against getting politically bogged down in Libya as the weeks drag on. I don't think Obama has been timid; I think he has been sly. It has been precisely the deep skepticism of intervention in Libya from some quarters of the administration that has forced the Arab League and the Europeans to pony up and relieve us of the political burden.

Had we intervened decisively a week or two ago, we would have owned the mission, and then we would possibly have had a small-scale Iraq or Afghanistan on our hands. But delay has brought us allies, not only in name but in fact.

No one knows exactly how this will unfold from here. The United States might still emerge too far out in front, given its far stronger military assets compared with those of our allies. Protracted civil war or chaos could still ensue in Libya, a country that has been fairly described as a weak state. But it has started well, with the drumbeats of war coming as much from London, Paris, and Cairo as well as from Washington.

American grand strategy at a time of ongoing military burdens abroad and fiscal tightening at home requires that we leverage like-minded, democratic others to share the responsibilities and to take the lead at times. I'm glad Obama has backed into this at the last moment rather than leading the charge from the beginning. It will lesson American exposure going forward and thus allow the president and his team to keep their focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other U.S. commitments.

We should be clear: The goal is to prevent the kinds of atrocities that would constitute a moral catastrophe. We aren't in it to help govern Libya.