Who won the war in Libya? If this strikes you as a premature question, you must not be a professional political analyst. The pros were working on the question of who would get the W in the scorebook before the air strikes even began.
Friday, a Politico headline declared the decision to use force in Libya a ”
“—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Glenn Thrush reported, had been ”
her fierce internal battle to push President Barack Obama to join the fight to liberate Libya from Muammar Qadhafi.
the “lame duck” designation, in an unusual concession that not every action taken by every official is best viewed in terms of that official’s reelection prospects, especially when the official doesn’t hold an elected position. Progress! Or perhaps someone at State just pushed back against the “lame duck” tag as disrespectful. (As for the choice to describe executive deliberations as “fierce…battle,” while literal people were engaged in the kind of literal fierce battle in which they were literally getting blown up—well, that’s Politico.)
Either way, the political campaign had begun. By Saturday, the New York Times had a different story to tell about the heroic battle for the battle for Libya. According to Helene Cooper and Steven Lee Myers, Clinton had stood with Obama as a “skeptic” about using military force, before a bold faction of administration aides
. It was not until after that that the Secretary of State
joined Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had been pressing the case for military action, according to senior administration officials speaking only on condition of anonymity. Ms. Power is a former journalist and human rights advocate; Ms. Rice was an Africa adviser to President Clinton when the United States failed to intervene to stop the Rwanda genocide, which Mr. Clinton has called his biggest regret.
Now, the three women were pushing for American intervention to stop a looming humanitarian catastrophe in Libya.
The Times didn’t quite specify the nature of the “humanitarian catastrophe,” or why air war against Libya was guaranteed to stop it. Power, like Rice, is inspired by the
, which happened after a protracted civil war and the assassination of the country’s president.
The analogy between Rwanda and the Libyan rebellion is not especially obvious—particularly before the air strikes, with Muammar Qaddafi still in control of the country and making gains against the rebels. Would a quick Qaddafi victory, ugly as it would have been, necessarily have created a humanitarian crisis greater than, say, the decade of suffering in Iraq under the West’s last big
? Why would air war against Qaddafi be any better for the Libyan people than air war against Saddam was for the Iraqi people? Unfortunately for humanitarian limited-war doctrine, the dictator is usually the last to starve.
There was an alternative explanation for the week’s events, besides the beseeching of high-minded advisers, the Times allowed:
The shift in the administration’s position — from strong words against Libya to action — was forced largely by the events beyond its control: the crumbling of the uprising raised the prospect that Colonel Qaddafi would remain in power to kill “many thousands,” as Mr. Obama said at the White House on Friday.
That is, on Monday, it still seemed possible that the rebellion might overthrow Qaddafi without American military help, but by the end of the week, the Qaddafi regime was obviously winning. So it’s not clear that Obama was persuaded to change plans about Libya by anything other than the fact that the original plan wasn’t working.
Yet according to the Times, it was “only” through the back-room efforts of the humanitarian faction that the president’s deployment of the military “became possible.” Thus spoke the senior administration officials, strictly on condition of anonymity, selflessness layered on selflessness. Out of looming defeat, victory; out of victory, credit, on the front page of the Saturday paper.
Later that day, the cruise missiles started falling.