Liberal supporters of Barack Obama’s war in Libya argue that this is all vastly different from President Bush’s war in Iraq, because the former has been more successful in winning international sanction. (See, for instance, these articles by Peter Bergen and David Corn.) Unfortunately, as Abe has already pointed out, there are limits to how far our new-found supporters are willing to go–witness the weasely Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, who is already starting to disassociate himself from actions taken in the Arab League’s name. (No doubt turning on the West will be good fodder for his campaign for Egypt’s presidency.)
The broader point is that international support at the beginning of an operation is less important than support at the end–and that depends not on how many UN resolutions you can win (we had quite a few in the case of Iraq, it is worth recalling) but how successful you are in achieving your war aims on the ground. Case in point: the war in Afghanistan which had as much international support as possible when it started in 2001 but has been fast declining in popularity, with allies pulling their forces out or about to, because it has dragged on so long and so indecisively. When it comes to Iraq, my firm belief is that if the war had gone as well as the Bush administration had expected–if our forces had found WMD stockpiles and if they had managed to quickly stabilize the situation and avoid a protracted insurgency–then there would have been widespread support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein including across the Muslim world. The war became intensely unpopular, and a rallying point for jihadist forces, not because it lacked sufficient UN authorization (something that Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Muqtada al Sadr couldn’t have cared less about), but because it was incompetently conducted and led to a vacuum of authority that radicals could fill.
In Libya, what this means is that the Obama administration should tone down its boasting–which so far has proven false, anyway–about how other countries are taking the lead. Rather than rushing to put the U.S. in the background, they should be worrying about the endgame: how are we going to get Qaddafi out of power and what comes next? There is a real danger of a protracted stalemate followed by a precipitous collapse of the regime leading to a vacuum of authority which could be filled by tribal fighters and jihadists. To avert such an outcome we should be training the rebel armed forces and making plans to send in an international peacekeeping force to assist in the transition if and when Qaddafi is finally pushed out of power.