By Marco Funk
The death of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi last month marked the end of many eras. It was the end of one of the world’s longest running dictatorships, brought about by an unlikely coalition of former colonial powers’ fighter jets and young rebels wielding assault rifles for the first time in their lives. In remarkable contrast to the United States’ war in Iraq, the United Nations approved this intervention – yet despite the Qaddafi regime’s historic enmity with the American “devil, ”Washington kept its military commitment to a minimum and encouraged other nations to take the lead.
Given America’s recently active role in the Middle East, one might have expected the US to jump at the chance to side with the Libyan people in kicking out the dictator responsible for the infamous bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Why did the superpower of today delegate its revenge to the superpowers of yesteryear?
According to Sciences Po student and Iraq war veteran John Paul LeCedre, who served as a US Army Captain in Baghdad during the 2007 “surge,” there are several reasons why America decided to stay in the operational shadows.
“I think it’s a perception issue, not a capacity or political one,” said LeCedre. “It’s President Obama wanting to show the world that we’re team players again,” he said. The domestic and international backlash resulting from the Iraq War made it difficult to justify bold action both at home and abroad. “If we would’ve gone in unilaterally, it would’ve smelled like Iraq all over again,” he said.
LeCedre experienced combat first hand on the ground during one of the Iraq War’s most intense periods and is intimately familiar with the US military’s deployment capabilities. He admits that starting a third front in Libya during the surge would have stretched American forces to the breaking point. Three years later, this is no longer the case. According to LeCedre, the United States could have easily carried out the no-fly zone enforcement missions over Libya on its own.
Politically, President Obama actively supported efforts to remove Qaddafi from power once violence erupted in Libya. Diplomatic pressure steadily increased during the lead-up to the NATO operation, both unilaterally and multilaterally. The US played an active role in negotiating UN sanctions against Libya and helped pave the way for military intervention after sanctions failed to change Qaddafi’s mind about killing his own people. For LeCedre, the fact that US forces were among the first to be mobilized proves that America was far from disinterested in Libya.
If President Obama’s decision to assume a backseat strategy towards the NATO operation in Libya can be attributed to the Iraq War’s critical reception at home and abroad, what were the factors motivating this backlash? International resentment towards America’s brash, unilateral actions leading up to the Iraq War is well known and needs little further explanation. The situation on the home front is less evident.
According to LeCedre, the American public has grown tired of overseas military operations. The level of popular support for the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan is low. In the latest CNN/ORC opinion poll conducted on November 18-20, only 29 percent of respondents were in favor of the Iraq War. This figure has changed little since the surge three years ago. Americans’ support of the war in Afghanistan is similarly low, at 35 percent.
Peoples’ awareness of current events in the Middle East is also lacking. One of LeCedre’s own family members asked him whether a war was still going on in Iraq while he was on leave from his deployment in 2007. “There is some resentment in the military that the country is so disaffected by the war,” said Le Cedre; “Iraq isn’t seen as America’s war but the military’s war,” he said.
With a presumably tough reelection battle on the horizon, President Obama’s responsiveness to popular sentiment is more important than ever. Unpopular military operations are especially unaffordable in times of low approval ratings due to America’s ongoing economic troubles. The intervention in Libya simply could not take center stage in the current domestic environment.
LeCedre himself is not even convinced that military intervention in Libya was necessarily a good idea. He worries that the vacuum of power left behind by the Qaddafi regime’s demise might turn the aspiring democracy into an instable breeding ground for terrorism. After Iraq and Afghanistan, “the last thing we want is to be fighting another counter insurgency,” he said.This article was first published on 28th November 2011.