A fortnight ago the Arab Spring seemed to have lost its momentum. In Libya the battle against Muammar Gaddafi looked set to continue for months, if not years, and the Obama administration faced considerable domestic pressure to withdraw from what was effectively a third open-ended Middle East conflict. Col Gaddafi’s sudden reversal of fortunes has, almost overnight, presented the West with possibilities it dared not hope for at the start of its campaign. Although Gaddafi remains at large, summoning supporters to “purify” Tripoli of its “rats,” and parts of the capital are still a war zone, the capture of the Colonel’s fortified compound effectively marks the end of his dictatorship. This unexpected denouement has meant that precisely because the United States has, “led from behind” – as Obama’s critics have said to all who will listen – the rebels appear to have unseated a previously invulnerable tyrant with minimal Western support.
Despite the considerable challenges that lie ahead, Libya’s new government can claim a legitimacy that its counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan could not. Already, the Arab League has formally recognized the National Transitional Council (NTC) with a seat in its chamber. This encouraging turn of events will likely have profound consequences for future US foreign policy. In particular it vindicates those who urged Obama to intervene in Libya but advised him to make sure that the US appear to play second fiddle to France, Britain and NATO. This shrewd distance has allowed Obama to set the stage for deep political change within the region with a minimum of post-revolution encumbrances – his administration has not been seen to support anyone overtly – and at bargain basement prices. As the political commentator Fareed Zakaria has noted: “The direct costs of the Libya operation so far have been less than $1 billion, about 0.1% of what has been spent on Iraq – and with no American military casualties and minimal Libyan deaths.” Whether by design or sheer good luck, President Obama’s softly-softly strategy seems inspired in hindsight. Even his critics are now disingenuously claiming that a more decisive intervention could have achieved the same result earlier.
Yet serious doubts remain, not least about the legitimacy of America’s military operations. In June the New York Times reported that Obama had ignored senior advisers in the Office of Legal Counsel who concluded that US military operations in Libya amounted to “hostilities.“ This would have forced the President to seek the approval of Congress for his use of War Powers. Instead, he finessed the problem by arguing that the US was merely supporting NATO. This sleight of hand is no different to the chicanery used by the Bush White House to facilitate torture – or ‘enhanced interrogations’– during its War on Terror. The decision to bypass Congress is particularly troubling given Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about adhering to the constitution, and his willingness to spend months of fruitless negotiation with Congress when trying to pass health care reform.
Whatever the rhetoric, the US has clearly played a pivotal role in the overthrow of Col Gaddafi. Just a few days ago, the Associated Press reported that “covert forces, private contractors and US intelligence assets were thrown into the fight [in Libya] in an undercover campaign operating separately from the NATO command structure.” The human costs of that conflict – many civilians were killed by US bombs – cannot therefore simply be waved away because the US had good intentions. Furthermore, there are many other parts of the Middle East that now expect similar US support in the immediate future. If the Obama administration has not observed the letter of the law during covert operations in Libya, why should it suddenly do so when pursuing a similar strategy in Yemen, or Syria? These questions should not be forgotten in the euphoria of victory. Gaddafi’s long reign of terror may be over, but the revolutions of the Arab Spring are still a work in progress. Any Western power that wishes, however indirectly, to define the future of those revolutions should do so with unusual care and circumspection.