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In Praise of Obama

I for one am delighted that Muammar Qaddafi, an unusually malevolent head of state, is dead. He brutalized the Libyan people for more than four decades, and he met the end he deserved.

There is plenty of credit to go around for this achievement, including to British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and President Obama. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the intervention in Libya (which I supported) will turn out to have been a wise one. Like Iraq after Saddam and Egypt after Mubarak, what eventually emerges in the aftermath of the Qaddafi regime will determine that. Still, those of us who have been critical of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy also need to be honest (to say nothing of gracious) in the face of reality. The Obama approach worked. His patience paid off. And as David Ignatius points out, Obama’s “cautious, back-seat approach to Libya … denied Qaddafi the final, apocalyptic confrontation with the United States that he craved.”

As a person who holds views very different from the president, I understand the impulse to deny him any credit at all—or to offer it only grudgingly when forced to. But this merely underscores a danger we all face, which is refusing to adjust our judgments in the face of facts and unfolding events. The temptation, for liberals as well as conservatives, is to make just about everything conform to our pre-existing worldview—and to deny inconvenient facts or twist them in a way that vindicates our assumptions and suppositions. But this denies a basic truth, which is that wisdom in life is based, at least in part, on adjusting our views along the way, in the face of new facts and new realities. Only an ideologue, a dogmatist, holds to a position when the evidence calls that position into doubt. (Liberals did this to Ronald Reagan during his presidency. They were so convinced he would fail that they could never acknowledge his successes; and the successes he did accrue had to be for reasons other than his policies.)

This matter is a lot more complicated than I can possibly deal with in a single post, and includes the fact that an approach that may work in one instance may not work in another. And it’s fine for people to entertain counterfactuals (would Qaddafi have been overthrown earlier if the United States had acted sooner and did America’s decision to keep a low profile during the war undermine NATO’s efforts?). It’s also fair to point out that if Qaddafi had not relinquished his WMDs in 2003, as a result of America’s invasion of Iraq, he would probably still be in power. (Six days after Saddam’s capture, Qaddafi publicly confessed that he had been developing chemical and nuclear weapons and pledged to dismantle his WMD program, along with related missiles, under a system of strict international verification; and he did.) But what matters are outcomes–and at this point, the outcome is one that America should be pleased with. Conservatives should not be reluctant to say so–or reluctant to give President Obama the praise that is due him.