Obama Claims Vindication on Libya Policy

Jim Lobe*

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 21 (IPS) — The death of former Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi was hailed here Thursday by both the administration of President Barack Obama and some of his Republican foes as the latest in a series of victories for U.S. foreign policy.

In a brief televised appearance in the White House Rose Garden, Obama himself called Gaddafi’s demise “a momentous day in the history of Libya” and, somewhat uncharacteristically, extolled U.S. leadership in the multinational effort to oust him.

“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end,” he declared.

“This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world,” he said, noting Washington’s recent successes in killing leaders of Al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden.

His vice president, Joe Biden, also hailed the day’s events as a major victory. “America spent two billion dollars total and didn’t lose a single life,” he exulted.

Gaddafi’s death just outside his hometown of Sirte, apparently at the hands of fighters loyal to the National Transitional Council (NTC), came just two days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told students at an town meeting in Tripoli that she hoped the former strongman “can be captured or killed soon so that you don’t have to fear him any longer”.

Clinton’s was the first visit by a Cabinet-level U.S. official to Tripoli since anti-Gaddafi rebels gained control of the capital in late August.

It was unclear whether U.S. or NATO forces played any role in Gaddafi’s capture. He was reportedly found hiding in a sewer pipe and subsequently beaten and shot, according to some reports, by his captors. He died in an ambulance en route to a hospital, according to various eyewitness accounts and video footage.

A number of unconfirmed reports Thursday indicated that two of his sons were also killed in the last stages of the TNC’s month-long siege and eventual conquest of Sirte. NATO warplanes had increased their bombing of pro-Gaddafi positions in the city over the last two weeks.

While still cautious about how the situation will evolve now that Gaddafi has been eliminated – both U.S. officials and independent analysts here are particularly worried about rivalries and tensions among and between the various militias that have taken control of Tripoli – the administration and its supporters are claiming that the outcome marks another major victory for Obama’s foreign policy.

They have been smarting for some time from Republican charges that Obama was sacrificing Washington’s “indispensable” and muscular global leadership in favor of a more restrained, multilateral approach to foreign policy and war making – a formula encapsulated by the perhaps ill-chosen phrase of one unnamed Obama aide quoted in a widely read New Yorker article: “leading from behind.”

Virtually every Republican presidential candidate, as well as neo-conservative and right-wing commentators, have cited the phrase since it was first published to mock Obama’s approach to national security.

They were particularly critical of Obama for not taking military action against Gaddafi’s forces until after the U.N. Security Council formally approved the imposition of a “no-fly” zone, and, after using U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles to take out Libya’s air defenses in the first week of the NATO campaign, reducing the U.S. role to providing mainly logistical, refueling, intelligence and surveillance support for its allies, most importantly Britain and France. They also reproached Obama for resisting appeals to provide direct military aid to rebel militias.

Some Republicans continued to complain about the administration’s approach Thursday. While insisting that “today’s not a day to be pointing fingers”, for example, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who visited Libya in late September, said that the credit was due more to “the French and the British that led this fight and probably even led on the strike that led to his capture or to his death”.

“My point is, if the U.S. had gotten involved early, aggressively and decisively, today would have happened months ago, Libya wouldn’t be as destroyed, it wouldn’t cost as much money to rebuild them, there wouldn’t be as many people dead or injured, and there wouldn’t be as many militias or rockets missing,” Rubio told Fox News.

Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican candidate who was defeated by Obama and who visited both Benghazi and Tripoli after rebels took control of it, was less negative, appealing instead for “the United States, along with our European allies and Arab partners”, to offer deeper support for the Libyan people. In his statement, however, McCain made no reference to the administration’s role in supporting the rebel movement.

Nonetheless, some Republicans issued more positive assessments. “The administration, especially Secretary Clinton, deserves our congratulations,” said Sen. Mark Kirk, who also travelled to Libya last month.

Democrats, led by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, were far more enthusiastic, suggesting that Obama’s approach to the campaign was a new model for U.S. military action.

“The United States demonstrated clear-eyed leadership, patience, and foresight by pushing the international community into action after Qaddafi promised a massacre,” he said in a statement.

“Though the Administration was criticized both for moving too quickly and for not moving quickly enough, it is undeniable that the NATO campaign prevented a massacre and contributed mightily to Qaddafi’s undoing without deploying boots on the ground or suffering a single American fatality,” Kerry added.

“This is a victory for multilateralism and successful coalition- building in defiance of those who derided NATO and predicted a very different outcome,” he said.

Whether Libya – and Obama’s performance – will be a major factor in the 2012 presidential election campaign, however, appears unlikely.

While national security was the top issue in the 2004 race between Kerry and former President George W. Bush, the country’s high unemployment rate and fiscal vulnerability are currently being given far more attention by U.S. voters.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.