Like the U.S. military manhunt for Saddam Hussein, the search for the fugitive dictator Moammar Gaddafi took seven months. He finally popped up, like his Iraqi counterpart, from an inglorious hiding place and is now dead.
How President Obama helped bring about the end of a long-standing American antagonist in Libya captures in microcosm the vast difference in the way he and his predecessor, George W. Bush, have employed diplomacy and military power against their declared enemies.
Both approaches resulted in the removal of longtime U.S. nemeses who had enjoyed a few years in Washington’s favor.
But Bush’s invasion cost nearly $1 trillion and more than 4,400 American lives, while Obama’s more limited intervention highlighted a national security strategy that emphasizes global burden-sharing, and secretive tactics and technologies whose legality has been questioned. The NATO airstrikes on Gaddafi’s convoy Thursday included a missile launched from a U.S. drone aircraft.
“Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives,” Obama said Thursday in a brief Rose Garden appearance.
Obama’s technocratic approach to governing has served him far better in foreign policy, where facts, expert appraisal and intelligence often trump ideology, than it has in domestic politics. At a time of economic uncertainty at home, the achievements abroad, including the killing of Osama bin Laden in May, have not translated into political popularity.
Moreover, his foreign policy approach has made him critics on the right, who say his one-of-the-gang approach has diminished America’s stature in the world; and on the left, who view his embrace of drone strikes as a violation of his pledge to restore the rule of law to national security.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, described Obama’s strategy as one that “uses U.S. military power in a more focused way with smaller footprints, leveraging our very unique capabilities.”
“When we took office, you had an approach of very large U.S. military footprints in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the official said. “We’ve moved toward a far more targeted approach that leverages U.S. military capabilities rather than large forces overseas.”
A Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Obama has demonstrated a calculated ruthlessness in waging war against al-Qaeda, killing bin Laden, U.S.-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and numerous other foot soldiers through special operations and drone strikes.
He has expanded that often-unseen war, improvising at times to explain the legal rationale behind the operations or, at other times, declining to acknowledge the U.S. role at all.
After months of Republican criticism that his leadership has been limp and late in Libya and in the other uprisings of the Arab Spring, Obama asserted Thursday that Gaddafi’s demise “comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world.”
“We’ve taken out al-Qaeda leaders, and we’ve put them on the path to defeat,” he said. “We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.”