For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force.
In the last six months, he authorized Navy SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. He approved the fatal drone strike on an American cleric in Yemen and dispatched military advisors to Uganda to help hunt down the leaders of a notorious militia. All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents.
Now he has added Moammar Kadafi to the list of enemies eliminated.
“This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world,” Obama said from the White House Rose Garden, tabulating his achievements with language that betrayed a trace of bravado.
“We’ve taken out Al Qaeda leaders, and we’ve put them on a path to defeat.”
Those foreign victories are unlikely to bring the president much reward at home. With voters singularly focused on the economy, developments overseas have little influence on Obama’s approval rating. His bump in the polls after Bin Laden’s death in May lasted barely a month. No one expects a similar boost from Kadafi’s demise.
About the most Obama and his strategists can hope for politically is that killing U.S. enemies such as Bin Laden and Kadafi will help defend him against Republican charges that he is a weak, indecisive leader. Though he may be stuck with Jimmy Carter-esque economic numbers, Obama has avoided the image of foreign policy weakness that helped make Carter vulnerable in his quest for a second term.
Obama’s aides have not been shy in making that point. Asked in a recent interview whether Obama had been prepared for the presidency, David Axelrod, a top campaign advisor, replied, “Maybe you should go ask Osama bin Laden if he thought he was prepared.”
In recent months, the Libya air campaign, which was launched in March, had become almost an afterthought in Washington, where the president and his Republican opponents are locked in stalemate over the economy and the overall size of government.
But while foreign military operations may not grab the public’s attention, they have become one of the Obama administration’s clearest legacies. It has embraced a distinct style of war that can be seen clearly in the commando raid on Bin Laden’s compound, the Hellfire missile attack that killed Anwar Awlaki in Yemen and the airstrikes in Libya.
Obama made clear his preference for those sorts of engagements in his most prideful line Thursday: “Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objective,” he said.
That change has been partly imposed by circumstances. Obama went into the Libya crisis determined to not stretch American military resources further, with U.S. forces committed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the domestic economy struggling. The result is a new approach to waging war.
“The contrast between [George W.] Bush’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama’s handling of Libya is breathtaking,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “No ground footprint, no U.S. casualties and no responsibility for the day after.”
Obama’s willingness to engage militarily has angered some of his Democratic supporters. But he was never the dove that some imagined in 2008. As a candidate, Obama argued that terrorist groups in Afghanistan were a more direct threat to the U.S. than were the insurgents in Iraq, and he sent an additional 13,000 troops there a month after taking office.
Late in 2009, he approved 30,000 more, which increased the overall U.S. troop presence to nearly 100,000. Even when the troop surge ends after next summer, there will still be more U.S. troops in Afghanistan than when Obama took office.
But in contrast to President Bush, Obama has tried to avoid at least the appearance of America acting as a solo sheriff. In his remarks after Kadafi’s death, he linked the end of the Libyan regime to that broader foreign policy theme as he stressed that the U.S. had acted as part of a “coalition that included … NATO and Arab nations.”
Libya may be back on the administration’s problem list long before the 2012 election rolls around, of course.
Kadafi is “gone, but what will be the character of the political order that emerges in his wake?” asked Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University. “I don’t think the U.S. will have a tremendous amount of influence in determining what the character of that order will be.”
U.S. and allied officials acknowledged that it would be a struggle to bring Libya’s independent militias under central control, to gather up Kadafi’s remaining arms, and to build a democracy in a country that has no tradition of independent political institutions.
“There is going to be a population of people — a small one, but nevertheless one that has to be contended with — who believe they were better off with Kadafi,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in an interview with CBS.
She also said that the country remained “awash in weapons,” in what is “a big concern for the United States.”
Despite those caveats, administration aides have reason to regard the seven-month Libya mission as a success — and were quick to claim it as such.
“The bottom line is this is a huge victory for the Libyan people, but we wouldn’t be where we are today without the decisions that the president made,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications. “We were able to see a dictator of over 40 years fall in less than eight months, and that’s an extraordinary pace of events.”
Times staff writers Paul Richter, David S. Cloud, Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.