Feature

Qaddafi vows a long war after the West intervenes

A coalition of U.S., French, and British warships and fighter jets interceded on behalf of rebels in Libya's civil war.

What happened Cruise missiles and bombs rained down on Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces this week, as a coalition of U.S., French, and British warships and fighter jets interceded on behalf of rebels in the country’s civil war. The American-led coalition’s intervention came after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution that authorized “all necessary measures” to protect the civilians in rebel-held towns and cities, which were under heavy bombardment from Qaddafi’s tanks and warplanes as he threatened to “show no mercy” to his enemies. The multinational forces unleashed a barrage against Libyan air defense sites and surface-to-air missile batteries, effectively destroying his air force, and then drove back Libyan armored and infantry units massing outside the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.

President Obama, who had resisted intervening in Libya for several weeks, called on Qaddafi to “leave now,” but said that with the successful establishment of a no-fly zone, “we have averted an immediate tragedy,’’ and U.S. forces would step back. Qaddafi said the West was in for a long war, telling his supporters, “I am here! We will not surrender.” The international coalition that spearheaded the intervention, meanwhile, showed signs of internal conflict, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron jockeying for authority once the U.S. scales down its role. Libya’s rebels, meanwhile, seemed too disorganized and ill-equipped to exploit the West’s attacks on Qaddafi’s mechanized units and struggled simply to hold their ground.

What the editorials saidPresident Obama was right to wait to “deploy American forces,” said The New York Times. With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama waited until he could be sure that France and Britain “would share the responsibility and cost of enforcing international law.” We’d like to know the exit strategy, however.

So now the West is involved in the rebels’ uprising against Qaddafi, said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Now what?” If our mission’s goals are truly humanitarian, then we cannot allow this to end in a stalemate, with Qaddafi still smugly sitting in his tent in Tripoli and 6.5 million Libyans in chaos. The president insists that Qaddafi “needs to go,” said the New York Post. But even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, has said the dictator might remain in power. “So which is it?” And by what constitutional authority did Obama, who once denounced imperial presidencies, unilaterally order an attack on a foreign nation? Even George W. Bush did not begin the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without “congressional resolutions specifically authorizing the use of force.”

What the columnists saidOur dithering president “blew it” by waiting too long to defang Qaddafi, said Jonah Goldberg in the Los Angeles Times. The rebels had the momentum when the Libyan uprising began in February, as members of the madman’s government fled Tripoli because it looked as though the rebels would win. A small U.S. intervention then “might have toppled Qaddafi.” Instead, Obama waited for international consensus. He got his wish: “The French shot first.” But he gave Qaddafi time to recover and dig in.

The humanitarian case for intervention was pretty clear weeks ago, said Richard Cohen in The Washington Post. And yet Obama chose to make a case both for “staying out” and then for going in. This Hamlet-like confusion and indecision seems to characterize his entire foreign policy, which is a muddle of “incoherence.’’ Obama “often solves problems by ignoring them,” acting only when he no longer has a choice.

The “dithering” complaint is nonsensical, said Kevin Drum in MotherJones.com. Before committing U.S. forces to another country’s civil war, this president carefully considered his options. “When did it suddenly become a personality defect to decline to intervene in a foreign rebellion?” By delaying, said Glenn Thrush in Politico.com, Obama successfully maneuvered France, Britain, the Arab League, and even the fractious U.N. Security Council into backing a no-fly zone. But does his strategic caution and preference for international consensus suggest wisdom or weakness? Is there a coherent set of foreign-policy ideas that could be called an “Obama doctrine”? No one can say. Obama has left both liberals and conservatives unhappy about how he’s handled Libya, and his “opacity is coming back to haunt him.”

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