With each passing day of fighting in Libya it is sadly becoming more and more obvious that the international hopes of seeing long-time dictator Col. Moammar Qadhafi deposed from his more than four-decade butcherous rule are fading. The 2011 tide that has swept long-time strongmen from power in Tunisia and Egypt seems to be turning in the direction of a man who has ruled the East African country without question or mercy.
As unfortunate as this situation may be, the sad fact is this is the closest the world has come to tossing Qadhafi overboard. Despite having barely escaped the bombing of his tent home in April 1986, courtesy of a U.S. airstrike ordered by then President Reagan, Qadhafi has been able to keep the tribal people of his country under his firm grip. With loyal tribesman who are better equipped and trained, Qadhafi and his forces are starting to retake all of the cities and oil fields lost when rebel forces made their move several weeks ago.
Such was the conclusion offered by Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, in public testimony before Congress last week. Their pronouncements were not welcomed, but they speak to reality that seems likely to come to pass, which leads to a very politically loaded question: “If Qadhafi wins, does Obama lose?”
Since the uprising in Libya unfolded several weeks ago, the Obama Administration has been careful to not weigh in on either side so as to be seen as meddling in the situation. The President himself even went out of his way in the early days of the situation to not even mention Qadhafi’s name (sort of like the Harry Potter Voldemort thing), but when things started to escalate and the Libyan strongman started to use his military forces and aircraft on his own population, the President stepped firmly into the microphone and said it was time for him to go. But that was about it.
Since then, a debate over a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan military aircraft from further bombing the civilian population and rebel positions has gone on, with Qadhafi moving quickly to re-consolidate his power and retake every piece of land seized by rebel forces. Even with the recent endorsement of the Arab League for a no-fly zone over Libya, the prospects of actually seeing one at this point are truly remote. U.S. forces are already stretched thin, and while the rest of the world would rather see Qadhafi gone, no one else seems to have the prevailing will or interest to go it alone and support the rebels in their cause.
This President has, from his first day in office, made clear that he has zero interest in taking any type of unilateral approach in regard to use of U.S. military forces. The situation with Libya may be one of the biggest tests of that approach because Qadhafi was teetering on the ropes and moments away from a knock out, but like any desperate fighter in the ring, if he gets his legs back, a quick breath of air and sees an opening to strike, he will and in this case, he did. With just a bit of a shove from the United States or other international forces in support of the rebel forces, Qadhafi could have been KO’ed and out of business for good. Instead, he appears to be back in control of the situation and has publicly pledged to “cleanse” rebel held cities of those he does not want.
If this scenario comes to pass and the Libyan rebellion is indeed crushed and Qadhafi, his family and his supporters do exact their brutal revenge upon the population, people are going to quickly blame President Obama for his lack of initiative in ridding the world of a man President Reagan once dubbed the “mad dog of the Middle East.” That blunt criticism is not without foundation. For as stretched as U.S. power may be, getting rid of despot that has more than his share of American and international blood on his hands is in the strategic interests of this country and, for that matter, the world.
Qadhafi’s track record of human rights violations and sponsoring terrorist acts are well known and documented, and there can be little doubt as to what he will do once he regains control of his country. He will be emboldened to seek revenge upon those he knows opposed him and even those he suspects of just having sympathy with the rebel cause. We also know he’s got chemical weapons and has no hesitancy in ordering the deaths of innocents, attacks on U.S. military personnel or the air traveling public at 31,000 feet.
As the nation prepares for the 2012 Presidential contest, the contenders and pretenders who want to face off against Barack Obama on November 6 will all point out when the time came to take Qadhafi out, a public enemy to this country, this President blew it off. That may or may not be a fair criticism of his handling of the situation, but it will be a big part of the national debate we see unfold.
Qadhafi’s victory does not guarantee a defeat of the President in his re-election effort, but it does put front and center how this President uses American power when it comes to taking on and taking out people who aren’t our friends. It’s an issue he rode all the way to the White House in 2008 when he promised everyone he wouldn’t be like his predecessor, George W. Bush, in using America’s strength in any type of unilateral fashion. It’s also exactly the same issue his opponents will use against him in the upcoming campaign when they frame whether he knows what he’s doing when it comes to being the leader of the free world.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.