With Moammar Gadhafi on the ropes as the rebels flood Tripoli, President Obama seems well poised – at least theoretically – to reap political benefits for his decision to wage war in Libya.
After all, he orchestrated a multinational coalition to help take down a notorious tyrant, and he did so without loss of American lives. Even the ’12 Republican candidates who predictably dissed him back in March are notably muted now, hilariously so, with Mitt Romney declaring, for instance, that “the world celebrates the idea of getting rid of Gadhafi,” and with Jon Huntsman hailing Gadhafi’s downfall as “a step toward openness, democracy, and human rights” – while totally omitting any mention of the president who has helped make it possible.So the Libya story will surely boost Obama’s domestic stock, right? At a time when he badly needs the boost, right?Not necessarily.As Winston Churchill would say, the current phase in Libya is merely “the end of the beginning.” Nobody yet knows who or what will fill the Gadhafi power vacuum. The rebels are not the second coming of George Washington’s Continental Army; quite the contrary. They shared the goal of deposing Gadhafi, but their intramural ethnic, religious, regional, and political differences could spark further violence within their own ranks. As one senior military officer told the press the other day (and this remark says it all), “The leaders I’ve talked to do not have a clear understanding how this will all play out.”If the rebels take it upon themselves to settle old scores by assassinating each other, and if they fail at the task of building a democratic Libya from the ground up (a daunting task, since Libya has virtually no civic infrastructure on which to build), then the current story line about Obama’s “vindication” will at best become a minor historical footnote. Presumably, the Obama administration and its western allies are crafting a postwar nation-building strategy (in current parlance, “a transition road map”) that will pave the way for peace – in contrast to the sectarian reign of terror that was unleashed in post-Saddam Iraq, thanks to the historic ineptitude of the Bush regime’s neoconservative war planners. But we won’t know this for quite some time; as foreign policy scholar David Rothkopf writes, “revolutions start fast, but take decades to reveal their true character.” We won’t know for awhile whether a new Libya will blossom democratically – or produce another dictator. (I can’t help but remember the romanticized rebel leader, in Woody Allen’s film Bananas, who seized power and promptly dictated new rules to the stunned crowd: “From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish! All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour! Underwear will be warn on the outside, so we can check! Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now – 16 years old!”)So there will be no “Mission Accomplished” moment, not for this American president, and there will be no short-term domestic political rewards. Voters are often fickle about foreign policy successes anyway. George H. W. Bush was summarily ousted in 1992 after having shoved Saddam out of Kuwait just 18 months earlier. Heck, not even Churchill could get himself re-elected prime minister in 1945, after having successfully guided Britain through the Nazi terror. Americans today are (rightfully) fixated on the economy at home; foreign wars barely register these days. Moreover, let’s be honest here, a huge share of our citizens don’t know Libya from Liberia and couldn’t find Libya on a map unless their fingers were duct-taped to the right location.Nevertheless, there is one Libya-related issue that might resonate. Lest we forget, oil prices spiked when the fighting erupted in March. Libya is sitting on huge oil reserves, and the multinationals are now poised to return and profit from peacetime. During the ’12 warm weather seasons, Obama could benefit politically if Americans find themselves paying less at the pump when they tank up their SUVs. That’s how they would assess the success or failure of the Libya intervention. Foreign policy nuance doesn’t cut it on the campaign trail. The surest route to Americans’ hearts is through their cars.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1