Tripoli has fallen to the rebellion. Muammar Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown, but in any case he is no longer ruling Libya. A few thoughts:
1. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
2. This may well have happened months ago if President Obama had not spent several weeks in February and March dithering. (I was quite critical of this at the time; after calling for a no-fly zone on February 21st, I was much more ambivalent about the idea by the time it was authorized by the UN Security Council on March 17.)
3. Gaddafi didn’t hang on as long as I’d feared he might, but dragging out the conflict had real costs. Besides the human cost in Libya, I strongly suspect (though of course I cannot prove a counterfactual) that it had an effect on Syria, which is strategically more important. About 2000 civilian protestors have been killed in Syria while the fighting dragged on in Libya. Had Gaddafi been quickly dispatched soon after turning the guns on his own people, it may have made Bashar Assad think twice about following the same course. And if dispatching Gaddafi quickly did not change Assad’s behavior, it likely would have changed the international response to his behavior. The situation in Libya bred reluctance to deal with Assad, both in the Obama administration and abroad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that calls for Assad to step down, and movement in Europe toward an oil embargo, came only last week, just as it began to look like the rebels were close to victory.
4. The delay was in part a function of a fixation on international approval for US military action. It is unlikely that the UN Security Council would have authorized intervention in Libya any earlier than it did — at the last possible moment before Gaddafi’s forces overran Benghazi, which would have turned into a slaughterhouse. (I am aware that some commentators, including on this website, have asserted that Gaddafi did not in fact intend to order war crimes against the civilian population of Benghazi. Suffice it to say that I don’t buy it.) Undo deference to the UN and other international institutions is a serious flaw in this administration’s worldview.
5. Indeed, Obama was more interested in making a case for intervention in Libya to the UN than he was in making a case to the American people or to Congress. There’s a case to be made that it was legal and constitutional for the executive to intervene in Libya, but it certainly wasn’t the nonsensical case that the administration made, which held that the War Powers Resolution is constitutional but somehow didn’t count in this case because the word “hostilities” does not mean what it plainly does mean. Anyway, whether or not this was a legitimate exercise of executive power, the hubristic refusal to even try to get a retroactive stamp of approval from Congress (which surely would have been forthcoming in March or April) was rather unseemly.
6. This is not necessarily the end of civil war in Libya. The rebels had a common foe in Gaddafi, but they are ideologically quite divided, and there are militias (including Islamist militias) that are not fully under the control of the National Transitional Council. We hope, of course, that everyone agrees to settle their differences through a democratic process, but the factions may well turn their guns on each other. And that’s not even getting to the question of what happens to those who fought on Gaddafi’s side.
7. If the fighting isn’t over, that’s a problem for Europe, which would bear the brunt of a refugee crisis. It is not a problem for the United States — at least, not a big enough problem to justify a further commitment. President Sarkozy should consider sending in groud troops for peacekeeping and stabilization. President Obama absolutely should not.