While Obama might claim success early on, given the vague mission of protecting civilians, we should not be fooled into thinking that an ongoing civil war represents a victory for American arms.Indeed, a prolonged stalemate would be a disaster. Wounded, vengeful, but undefeated, Qaddafi would pose a greater danger than ever. He could resume his practice of terrorist attacks on Western targets, working perhaps through jihadi elements such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, hundreds of whose members he has released from prison.
A protracted civil war in Libya could have effects beyond its borders. It could lead competing outside powers -- France, Turkey, or even China -- to back different Libyan factions. U.S. forces and resources would be tied down even as the United States seeks to wind down in Iraq and defeat a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. On the other hand, a premature exit would undermine American credibility in a region that already doubts Obama's steadfastness. Just as the administration's mishandling of last year's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico revealed its ineptitude in domestic matters, its mismanagement of the Libya intervention may become emblematic of its haplessness in foreign affairs.
The Obama administration's most glaring mistake in its approach to Libya is the central weight it has given to the United Nations. Hanging America's hat on U.N. approval has caused a mismatch between Obama's stated policy goal -- that Qaddafi must "go" -- and the limited means provided by U.N. approval for economic sanctions and civilian protections. Even at this early stage of the conflict, Obama's policy has created a large gap between U.S. strategic ends and U.N.-authorized means
The one positive in all this? If Libya at least brings about a rude awakening for the Obama administration on the follies of multilateralism and leads to the emergence of a new international security system, it will have done far more good than simply dragging the United States into a civil war.
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