Moammar Ghadafi’s death comes as just the most recent in a string of events putting the lie, conclusively, to the notion that Democrats are too weak, diplomatic, even-tempered, internationalist, or what-have-you to lead the American military. And every day the country survives without a terrorist attack counts as one more blow to the theory that Bush “kept us safe” because of, rather than in spite of, aggressive and quintessentially un-American tactics like torture. To their credit, Republicans seem to get it: throughout the series of increasingly hilarious Republican debates, I don’t think we’ve seen even one direct attack on Obama’s foreign policy from this angle — though it’s probably right to view the Palin/Romney argument that Obama doesn’t see America as an “exceptional” nation as some hybrid, taking the residuum of discredited national security talking points, mixing in a little bit of racism, and finishing it off with a layer of condescension.
Leave it to John Yoo then to explain how Obama is still — post-SEAL Team Six, the “war on pirates,” and the fall of Libya — an internationalist, UN sell-out. If only we’d attacked Libya sooner, and gone with a full-scale invasion, well the whole thing would’ve been over that much quicker!
But Obama does not get full credit, I think, because he took so long to intervene. Recall that the U.S. intervened only after the U.N. Security Council approved intervention. Obama chose to wait until Qaddafi had driven the rebels into a last holdout in Benghazi. He chose to restrain our operations along the lines set out by the Security Council, which forbade ground troops. This prolonged the ouster of Qaddafi into a full-blown civil war and resulted in more disintegration of the nation’s institutions than was necessary. To the extent that it is harder to get a new government to stand up and to collect and control Libya’s arms, part of the blame must also go to Obama’s delay because of his undue sensitivity to foreign opinion and the U.N.
It’s hard to say where Yoo’s faith in the virtue of unilateralism comes from. Certainly not results. Even accounting for the obvious reality that Libya stood in a far different state of affairs than Afghanistan or Iraq — which prevents me from arguing that Libya could’ve served as a template for those conflicts — thanks to Obama, Democrats can claim something that Republicans lack in the modern era: a foreign policy victory. True, Bush’s war toppled Saddam Hussein. But the Iraq War drained the treasury, creating the very deficit that Republicans today whine about; resulted in a new Iraq that America must either continue to prop up, or permit to implode; and its base price is measured in American lives, not missiles. In Libya, America managed to do some good, at a marginal price tag, and despite Republican opposition at every step. Call Libya a small victory, sure; but already, that’s more than Republicans can claim.