Muammar Qaddafi’s death is good news: It not only delivers justice for a cruel dictator but it also makes it unlikely that his supporters will be able to launch an insurgency to challenge the new government in Tripoli–and it sends a powerful message of accountability to other despots around the region, and indeed around the world. President Obama deserves congratulations for helping bring about this outcome. But does Qaddafi’s death vindicate, as the New York Times claims, “a new American approach to war: few if any troops on the ground, the heavy use of air power, including drones and, at least in the case of Libya, a reliance on allies”?
Count me as skeptical. Start with the “new” part of that sentence: Is there really anything new about relying on airpower to kill our enemies at scant cost to ourselves? Not really. That was, after all, the approach the Clinton administration employed in Bosnia and Kosovo and, less successfully, to target Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. It was also the approach the Bush administration used to topple the Taliban. Back in 2001, there were also many predictions that a new way of war had arrived relying on airpower and allies–remember all the hoopla about Special Forces on horseback? But we soon saw in Afghanistan (which I am currently visiting) such talk was premature–that precision munitions delivered from the air could help topple a regime, at least if they were coupled with a ground-combat force, but they could not replace it with a durable alternative. That would require the difficult work of nation-building. The Bush administration hesitated to get its hands dirty in either Iraq or Afghanistan and paid the price.
The Obama administration looks to be getting luckier in Libya. There is a higher likelihood Libyans will be able to replace a longtime dictator on their own–something Iraqis and Afghans were unable to do. But even in Libya there is no guarantee of a positive outcome: the rebels have been able to kill Qaddafi, but they have not agreed on a government to replace him.
Indeed, before the news of Qaddafi’s death, there was another, more disturbing news story out of Libya:
Two months after rebel fighters stormed into Tripoli and drove Muammar Qaddafi from power, the man effectively running the country in his role as temporary prime minister warned on Wednesday night that Libya could turn to chaos unless the war ended soon. Mahmoud Jibril, a U.S.-educated economist who helped persuade NATO members to launch their Libya campaign last March, also announced in an interview with Time that he was quitting – potentially leaving Libya in a perilous state of limbo.
If Libya does descend into chaos, the afterglow of Qaddafi’s death–and of the NATO-led campaign to oust him–will fade quickly. If, on the other hand, Libyans manage to get their act together and cobble together a representative government, Qaddafi’s death will have laid the foundation for a new order. Either way, the outcome is out of our control.
That is the problem with push-button wars: you can damage an enemy or even topple his regime, but you cannot truly dictate the outcome. Instead, you wind up being at the mercy of your proxies. In Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, the Northern Alliance, and other putative American allies proved not to be so reliable. Let us hope the Libyan rebels do better. But whatever happens, it is hard to see a new model of warfare being born in Libya.