October 24th, 2011
05:00 AM ET

Obama and Libya: Hold the triumphalism, please

Editor's NoteElliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.

By Elliott AbramsCFR.org

After the death of Moammar Gadhafi, Administration spokesmen and those journalists who pretty much take dictation from them have been triumphant. This was, they have said, final proof of the exquisite brilliance of Obama policy in Libya (despite the “howling” of critics, to quote David Ignatius).

I would hold off on the triumphalism, for the Obama approach had many flaws.

The limitations imposed on the use of American military power lengthened the Libyan internal conflict. The Transitional National Council estimated a total of 25,000 dead and 60,000 wounded.  Had we acted faster and not restricted the American role, those numbers would be smaller—perhaps far smaller, and the damage to Libya’s infrastructure also smaller. And had we used more air power to end the war faster, in weeks instead of months, perhaps the Libyan regime’s arsenals, including the extremely dangerous MANPAD shoulder-launched missiles, could have been captured intact.  Instead, stolen Libyan weaponry will present a threat for years to come.

Those limitations on the use of American power also shook NATO. NATO is an alliance always led by the United States, which is why its commander is always an American. When the United States backs away from leadership (the phrase “leading from behind” became famous during the Libya conflict), O allies question our broader commitment to NATO. They wonder how we will approach the next crisis and whether we will lead “from behind” or indeed not at all. These questions are asked not only by NATO allies but by others whose security is linked to our willingness to act.  Arab interlocutors with whom I have spoken have said that the American approach in Libya shook their faith that we would ever protect them from Iran. (The Administration’s reaction to the Iranian terrorist plot that might have blown up a restaurant in downtown Washington will, of course, add to those doubts.)

Then there was the Administration’s handling of the War Powers Act.  Hostilities in Libya required a firm stand: was the Act constitutional or did it too greatly limit presidential power?  The Administration refused to protect presidential powers and instead presented the nonsensical argument that what we saw in Libya were not hostilities at all.

Any administration would be claiming success for its policies after the demise of Gadhafi, but the Obama spokesmen appear to believe  they have devised a brilliant formula here that eliminated all problems and achieved every goal at almost no cost. The record suggests that is wrong: it can be argued this excellent outcome might have been achieved with far less death and damage in Libya, and far less damage to the faith of friends and allies in our commitment to their security.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliott Abrams.

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Topics: Libya • Military

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    I guess that the people here in this country will be in a big fat Huzzah over Libya for some time to come! That big bad Qadaffy is dead, hip,hip,hurray or should we say, SIEG HEIL?!?!?! NATO triumphs again over yet another small Muslim country!!!!

    October 24, 2011 at 11:18 am | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Elliot Abrahms should have joined the rebel forces, when the uprisings broke out in Libya. He might then be remembered by the Libyans as their "Lawrence of Arabia". One the one hand he deplored the high number of casualties – "a total of 25,000 dead and 60,000 wounded. Had we acted faster and not restricted the American role, those numbers would be smaller—perhaps far smaller, and the damage to Libya’s infrastructure also smaller".
    One the other hand he criticised Obama's reluctance to lead from the front and believed, "And had we used more air power to end the war faster, in weeks instead of months",
    Well Mr. Abrahms, had Obama followed your controversial and advice, Libya would have bombed to smithereens and more might have died.

    October 24, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      correction: controversial and CONTRADICTORY advice.

      October 24, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  3. Masterson, richard

    I support this president and especially his guidance during the Libian crises. Old hawks are typically reluctant to change. The United States is seen as a bully and we do not need to intervene in every conflict across the world. Other European nations had much more to gain or lose in this crises and it was in their interest to step up to the plate and assume the expense in cost of financing and in the cost of putting their troops at risk. The United States has been doing this on behalf of every country; every business interest since WWII, and it is time other countries to lead when a problem arises. President Sadat of Egypt told his neighboring Arab countries that he was backing off future wars against Isreal because while the other countries paid to finance these wars, it was Egypt that lost in blood. Things have changed thank you Mr President for not listening to old fool war mongers.

    October 26, 2011 at 11:42 am | Reply
  4. sami

    yes but no one counts 50,000 lives gone from the planet ...just for lousy politics and oil.......

    what a year 2011

    October 27, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  5. Occupado

    The easy part is over. Kadaffy is gone. Now comes the hard part: forming a democracy among people who have no idea who Thomas Jefferson was or what he stood for.

    October 27, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  6. Nadine

    Now that Gadaffi is dead those who will replace him are fractured and hate each other. Are we really sure that those people will not be our sworn enemies now that the horrible dictator is gone ? Gadaffi knew how to control them and he was the reflection of who they are (barbaric and uncivilized). Chances are very high that extremists will take control of Libya just like what is happening in Egypt. The Muslim brotherhood and salafists are going to win the approaching elections in Egypt and they are vehemently against America and Israel. Their leaders who are persecuting the coptic Christians of Egypt proclaimed that they loathe democracy and want to adopt the Sharia law. I am afraid we have opened a can of worms or even worse a barrel of snakes and this spells grave and mortal danger to America, Israel and possibly the entire world. We should have left Gadaffi alone and minded our own business if we really wanted peace and security for ourselves.

    October 27, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  7. ladusan

    Would you believe the TV staged falsifications or the facts? Evil man, somebody says? Then, why 2/3 of Libyan population just before this 'war' were foreign workers many of them from the west? Was it a country ran by dictator the one that attract them to go there? I wouldn't go for any money to such country, and from all my acquaintances and friends who worked there I dug out few facts about Libya under Gaddafi confirmed by a statement of this official:

    – USA and EU owns 200 bilion dollars to Lybia for the oil.
    – In 2012 will be the end of foreign oil companies concesion on Lybian oil
    – Gaddafi asked for debt to be paid and fregtn US and EU that otherwise he'll make new deals with other countries and companies.
    Now, did the ordinary citizen of Lybia have any reason whatsoever to rebel agianst Gaddafi? Look over here:

    Lybians during Gaddafi had a very easy and high standard life.

    – Lybia has 6.5 milion population and 14 milion registered cars.
    – If any Lybian citizen whatsoever wants to go to University in the foreign country the Lybian government makes that application possible. Student is being paid an apartment and food, a car, free scholarship plus $2300 a month!
    – In Lybia utilities are free (gas, water and electricity), there are no taxes no interest on instalments. If you can't pay all instalments in five years the state is doing that for you.
    If you want to buy a car, you pay 20-30% and the rest is being paid by the state.
    – In Lybia, you by 85 litres of gas for $10 (about 25 galons).
    – The food is almost free (25 pounds of bread is $0.15 for example)
    – Citizens of Lybia does not perform construction or heavy phiscal jobs. That is done by foreign workers only.
    I lived in Lybia for 10 years in all major cities and didn't see a one single begger. Lybians never go to work to foreign countries as they apparently don't have need for that. Neither one single citizen of Lybia has ever lost a House because couldn't pay the mortgage or instalment on a house. All these are not seldom phenomenas in so-called democratic countries that are after Lybia.

    Few underlined facts more:

    – Instalments with no interest. During the studies student recieves an avarage salary from the state.
    – If you can't find a job after the studies finished the state is paying you the salary as you are working in your profession.
    – After the marridge the state is giving a house as a present to every new married couple
    – Can buy a car with the 'factory price'
    – Lybia does not owe one single cent to anyone
    – US and EU owes $200 bilion to Lybia.
    – Free medical insurance (one nurse on each patient insured).
    – 25% of population are having University education.

    Enough facts to justify the destruction of Lybia?
    Prof. Dr. Sc. Vjekoslava Sankovic Simcic,
    MArch.President of ICOMOS in
    BiHEmerika Bluma 7/III71000
    SarajevoBosnia and Herzegovina

    October 29, 2011 at 9:31 pm | Reply
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