By any objective standard, the Obama approach to Libya has been a huge success. Not a single American life was lost, the United States worked in concert with the Arab League and in partnership with our NATO allies, a hated and oppressive regime was toppled and a hated, oppressive and dangerous dictator was wiped out, at a price less than a thousandth of the cost of the Iraq War.
It is a measure of the outrageous lengths the permanent campaign and our partisan polarization have gone that, according to Smart Politics at the Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota, only one Republican, Rep. Leonard Lance (N.J.), gave even a smidgen of credit to President Barack Obama in a press release or statement. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), to his credit, did give a gracious nod to the Obama administration (even if he gave more credit to others.)
But the norm here was set in a cringe-worthy fashion by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who was all over the airwaves after Moammar Gadhafi’s death praising the French and British — and not even mentioning our own military.
While most press statements by Republicans simply failed to acknowledge Obama or the administration, Rubio took the occasion to issue more harsh criticism of the president, claiming that if we had gone in earlier and harder, with massive unilateral American action via bombing, we could have toppled the regime, saved a lot of innocent lives and done more to ensure that the transition would lead in a good direction.
Would that have ended the conflict earlier, and in a better and less bloody way? I would argue that it could have been a colossal mistake. Bombing by American forces alone would have caused a reflexive and harshly negative reaction by the entire Arab world — there goes the United States, killing Muslims again. It would have been an unfair reaction, but a lasting one nonetheless.
That alone would have given some traction to Venezuelan President and Iranian toady Hugo Chávez in his support for Gadhafi and criticism of the United States (instead of the ridicule he received when he called the dead dictator a martyr).
There is a good chance that American bombing would have caused plenty of collateral damage, building resentment inside Libya, and probably with some American casualties. It is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that if we had stepped in alone, NATO would have stepped back — why risk lives and blowback if the Americans are going to take it all head on?
It is also likely that if we had succeeded quickly in wiping out the Gadhafi regime, there would have been a massive power vacuum in the country, with no one able to step in with any sense of legitimacy, nor any tribal council or coalition to try to implement a reasonable transition.
Libya, with no history of unity across its tribes and no record of democracy or legitimate government by self-rule, may well flounder and be the scene of a new dictator, a fundamentalist takeover or anarchy. But this has played out in a way that gives a great chance of success, at a lower cost to the United States, than anyone might have imagined.
And it is clear that there is genuine gratitude to the United States for its role — one that was much more than a secondary one, that pushed and prodded NATO to do more, that used American military capacity where the rest of NATO is extremely weak and limited, and that used skillful diplomacy to achieve a highly desirable end.
In a functional political system, there would be bipartisan kudos for a president who has been tough enough to take on his own left while nailing Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, and who has found a new model for American leadership in a resource-constrained and hostile world that can help us navigate through difficult engagements such as the Arab Spring and emerge as a force for freedom and liberty without taking on our own collateral damage.
It may not always work, and it may, as in Libya, take longer to unfold than we would like, but this should be the occasion for cooperation in the national interest, instead of ham-handed, partisan spite of the sort we have just seen from Rubio.
As Libya now struggles in its transition to (we hope) a better form of government, along with Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq, and we navigate through the ongoing battles for change in Yemen and Bahrain among others, there is another critical point that cries out for bipartisan cooperation — the even more pressing need to double-down on our smart power weapons to keep these victories for freedom from becoming Pyrrhic ones.
The U.S. Institute of Peace has its resources on the ground in many of these countries, and the weapons of aid and diplomacy are powerful ones, appreciated far more by our military leaders, such as CIA Director David Petraeus, than by our politicians.
We cannot let the drive for budget discipline, which continually focuses on the sliver of spending in discretionary domestic accounts to the exclusion of the big-ticket items, damage our fundamental national security.
In that kind of climate, foreign aid and diplomacy will lose to more politically potent domestic categories of spending, unless liberals and conservatives alike realize the fearsome price we will pay down the road via mindless cuts now.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.