Even though Qaddafi was a “revolutionary” anti-American figure, and even though his family and minions were intertwined with Western universities and intellectuals, Obama was worried about yet a third time being a day late and a dollar short, especially amid televised violence. Because he neither understood the rag-tag nature of the rebels (and either did not grasp or did not wish to grasp the jihadist elements among them), nor appreciated that tyrants like Qaddafi, quite unlike Mubarak and a Bin Ali, without compunction kill and “like it,” Obama had no idea that, in fact, the rebels could fizzle, and may, in fact, not be just Westernized intellectuals who want to turn Libya into Dubai.
3) The Three Graces. Then there were Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Powers who saw Libya as a postmodern goldmine. Think of it: an apparent cakewalk victory; restoring Obama credibility after the opportunistic and late endorsements in Egypt and Tunisia; a way to show that liberal interventions are tough, compassionate, and competent; subordination to the United Nations, the Arab League, and Europe; outsourcing of congressional approval to international prerogatives; using the military not for U.S. interests but for “humanitarian concerns” to stop “genocide.” And on and on.
So they bullied an otherwise distracted Obama (NCAA playoffs, golf, a Rio jaunt) into a sure-thing, “landmark” intervention on the cheap. Note very well: Key here was an important fact that the saner heads who knew something about strategy and the use of military force (e.g., Richard Holbrooke and James Jones) were either dead or gone. Robert Gates tried to warn Obama, but was overwhelmed.
Sum it all up: Obama thought that in a matter of days liberal Facebookers would storm Tripoli. He would get credit this time for being “there for them.” U.S. military intervention would be radically redefined as both competent and quick, in concert with the Europeans and subordinate to the international community. For Obama, the unBush, all that, amid sinking polls again, was too good to pass up (but also too hard to expend much energy on), so he voted more sorta yes than just present.
No one in this giddy “get it done before Tripoli falls” mood asked simple questions: How does our entry reflect long-term U.S. interests? Why Libya and not, say, a Syria? Why Libya and not, say, a Congo or Ivory Coast? How can the anti-war base now explain their decade-long opposition to just such preemptive attacks against Middle East Muslim countries (i.e., Bush went to Congress, and now Obama does not?)? Was Qaddafi the father of the Westernized poster boy Saif, or now back to the “mad dog of the Middle East”? Can the rebels really fight and who are they? Would a no-fly zone really do much good against Qaddafi’s ground assets? Did the UN and Arab League really mean just a no-fly zone and nothing much more? How long does Congress keep quiet? What happens if there is stalemate (e.g., how do we avoid a Mogadishu, or a long no-fly zone like over Iraq or a long bombing campaign like the Balkans?)? How to finesse the PR of concurrent obligations in Afghanistan and Iraq and a $1.6 trillion deficit?
I could go on ad nauseam, but you get the picture.
And now? There is only one way out: Obama must get Qaddafi pronto, by attacks on his ground assets, with Western special forces and intelligence services coordinating on the ground with the rebels (laptop GPS directions to our pilots, supplying arms, etc.). Then watch the laureate Obama hope and change away the resulting hypocrisies of embracing what he promised not to do—and outsource the messy occupation to the oil-hungry French and Britain, and the UN.
I think that is what we, in fact, will see — a messy end to a messy beginning.