Gaddafi and Obama shake hands during the expanded G8 Summit in Italy in July 2009 (Credit: China Daily)
The Editorial Team
Republican candidates going at each other in no holds barred campaigning to elect the Republican nominee to square off against the Democratic nominee in November to elect a new president have engaged in a number of debates in the last several months. They have invariably thrown red meat to the Republican base in condemnation of Obama’s stewardship of the nation—Obama does not love America and has been on a course to destroy the United States; the economy has never been worse in the history of the United States; Obamacare (President Obama’s signature health care law) has been a disaster which has destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs; Obama’s foreign policy is a failure and one of the consequences is the rise of ISIS and the spread of ISIS terror to Libya and Europe, and on and on.
One foreign policy subject the Republican candidates have often hammered Obama on is the fall of Gaddafi and the current political debacle in Libya, where the state has failed in the post Gaddafi era.
Should Obama be held responsible for the fall of Gaddafi? The Republican candidates have not only blasted Obama for the mess in Libya, but they have also put Hillary Clinton in their crosshairs on the issue, accusing her of complicity as Obama’s Secretary of State and senior adviser on foreign policy.
Some background on Libya is pertinent. When the Arab Spring bug entered Libya from neighboring Tunisia, it was initially not enough of a threat on Gaddafi’s hold on Libya. Using the massive coercive instruments of state at his disposal and a feared intelligence organization, Gaddafi was able to beat back the incipient rebellion unleashed by the revolution set off by a street vendor’s dramatic self-immolation to protest corruption in Tunisia. But the rebels regrouped and became bolder in their actions to force change in Libya. They built a formidable presence in Benghazi from where they hoped to take the fight to the seat of government in Tripoli and take out Gaddafi. There was fierce fighting between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels. Towns were captured and recaptured. Gaddafi became frustrated and threatened no mercy to the rebels in Benghazi. He authorized an attack on Benghazi and this is where Obama comes into the picture.
Obama led NATO to intervene to stop the looming massacre. Having declared a no fly zone over Libya, NATO carried out intense aerial assaults of Gaddafi’s forces, destroying tanks, rocket launchers and missiles. The decimation of Gaddafi’s army and his war infrastructure severely weakened his ability to exert control over Libya. He was ultimately captured by the rebels and assassinated.
Obama’s body language from the moment the Arab Spring began was one of disdain for any intervention to save the necks of the North African dictators—Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak of Egypt, and Gaddafi. The revolt had to play its course in hopes of spawning a new day in the context of democratization. Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak may have been America’s allies, but they were expendable if the promise of the revolt was democracy and the enthronement of human rights.
Post mortems of the Arab Spring agree on one thing, and it is the unleashing of political and/or economic instability in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt that are yet to significantly abate, especially in Libya where the state has totally collapsed. Tunisia has done relatively better politically while Al Sisi continues valiantly to put Egypt back together.
Gaddafi’s case is worth examining further. He was a different leader who ruffled feathers over the course of his long reign as Libya’s strongman. Fervently anti Israel more than any other leader in the Arab world, he sponsored various Palestinian groups. He destabilized his neighbors to the south, intervening in the domestic affairs of Chad and Niger, even attempting an annexation of Chadian territory after mineral deposits were found there. He amassed heavy military hardware and had started acquiring the building blocks to make a nuclear weapon. After the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the Second Gulf war, Gaddafi made a decision to give up his nuclear weapons. The US, with Gaddafi’s consent, participated in the international effort to remove the nuclear materials from Libya. Ayatollah Khamenei famously called Gaddafi a foolish man for giving up his nuclear assets that easily.
Gaddafi may have expected the US to allow him a free hand to move on Benghazi to crush the opposition, and if that had happened, he might still be in power today. Libyan stability would’ve been sustained and ISIS would not have a foothold there today. But hindsight is unquestionably 20/20. Many of Obama’s critics today wanted Gaddafi gone. Like Obama, they hoped a democratic Libya would replace Gaddafi’s military dictatorship. They wanted increased American involvement in shaping the new Libya, much like George Bush’s Iraqi Democracy project which cost the US so much in treasure and lives, yet at best remains an inconclusive venture.
Obama’s approach to issues arising out of the Middle East is based on two principles: 1. Thousand year old religious feuds with no hopes of resolution among the antagonists cannot be settled militarily by the United States without a severe drain on its resources that could threaten its economy; 2. If military force must be used, it has to be smart, intelligence based and must lead to outcomes that kill terrorist leaders and degrade terrorist infrastructure.
The jury is still out on whether Obama’s call was the right one to let Gaddafi fall. The Libyans recently formed a Unity Presidential Council to begin to retake control of the country from militias, allied groups and terrorists. The Republicans in Congress found a political tool in the Benghazi attack on the US Consulate on September 11, 2012, and they have used it to bludgeon Obama to score political points. Obama’s reticence to engage further in Libya in the post Gaddafi era could be attributed to the GOP’s harsh rhetoric about the embassy attack and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The Libyans may get it together with time. Statecraft is never easy.