Libya Could Be Obama’s Defining Moment

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The UN resolution demonstrates that the United States can lead — if it wants to. Up until Thursday, the United States had appeared agnostic and, at times, dismissive about military action. The leadership vacuum was striking, as Britain and France tried to push for a no-fly zone but only seemed to face resistance. Even the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference backed the no-fly zone. But they did not have the capability to implement it. The lesson was clear: Even in an age of apparent American decline, the United States was indispensable. However, America’s failure to act decisively one or two weeks ago cannot be undone. The rebels remain in a precarious situation with Benghazi as their last stronghold. What would have been an easier operation weeks ago has now become considerably more difficult. There is a cost, then, to “careful deliberation.”

Skeptics will argue that Libya is not vital to our national security interests. Even if that were the case, the fact that the world chose to intervene for largely humanitarian reasons and to support rebels fighting for democracy is something that should be applauded. And this is why Libya is not even remotely comparable to Iraq, where the U.S. invaded for reasons of “national security,” including WMDs and terrorism. Where, in Iraq, we stood alone calling for war while most of the world opposed it, the dynamic, this time, was reversed. The United States — along with Russia, China, and Germany among the major powers — stood increasingly alone in opposing the emerging Arab and international consensus favoring intervention.

One hopes that military intervention in Libya (or merely the threat of it) will succeed in ending Muammar Qaddafi’s brutal regime. If it does, it may convince the United States that doing the right thing is sometimes the right thing to do. After five decades of supporting repressive autocracies, Washington has a chance to align itself with Arab democratic aspirations, something it has so far failed to do three months into the uprisings. Libya, then, could prove a defining moment for the Obama administration, compelling it to embrace, however reluctantly, a policy of aggressive support for democrats and democracy in the new Middle East.