A reporter called me up with the question of the hour: does the apparent fall of the Qaddafi regime vindicate President Barack Obama's "lead from behind" strategy? The administration's most ardent boosters are quick to answer in the affirmative, but there are five reasons why the early spin may not last.
1. The most recent progress happened because NATO shifted course and stepped up military operations, especially American military operations, as critics had been calling for. As the New York Times spells out, when the administration finally took the critiques on board and stepped up U.S. operations, the stalemate tilted in favor of the rebels. The previous strategy of doing just a bit less than what was needed was not working and contributed to months of paralysis.
2. The operation took significantly longer than the administration expected, in part because a late entry and other operational choices hobbled early efforts. If the international coalition had joined the rebel cause a week earlier than they did (when rebel forces were initially pressing Tripoli), the Qaddafi regime might have collapsed within days or weeks rather than holding on for months. The late entry, and the contradictory declaratory posture (protecting the citizens, but not supporting the rebels; conducting military operations but promising no ground involvement, etc.) likely limited the impact of the kinetic operations.
3. Because this operation has dragged on, the collapse of the Qaddafi regime is happening as the international coalition is itself running out of steam. It appears that the clock has run out on Qaddafi before it ran out on NATO, but only just barely. The NATO coalition was fraying dramatically, and France and Britain, the two staunchest players, seem about at the end of their Libyan rope. What this means is that there is far less spare international capacity to deal with any problems that emerge in Libya than there would have been if we had reached this culmination point months ago, which is when the administration evidently expected it to be reached.
4. The strategic rationale by which Obama justified the Libya mission runs counter to the operational commitments he has made for the next phase. Obama invoked the "responsibility to protect" principle as the rationale for committing U.S. military forces and prestige to the Libya operation: if we had not acted, there would have been a bloodbath. He has consistently argued, however, that it is the responsibility of the Libyans to provide all of the necessary security to prevent a bloodbath after the fall of Qhaddafy. If the international community, and the United States in particular, had a responsibility to act in March to forestall a possible bloodbath that was not precipitated by U.S. action, why does Obama believe that the United States will have no responsibility to act in August or September if a bloodbath arises out of a power vacuum that our military action catalyzed? Which brings me to....
5. The real test of Obama's Libya operation will be how events play out after Qaddafi is gone. If post-Qaddafi Libya quickly transitions to a stable, representative political order, then the messiness of the last five months will be forgiven and forgotten. If the Obama team's planning for post-Qaddafi Libya is up to the task, that will go a long way to vindicating their approach. But as the George W. Bush administration ruefully knows, as hard as it is to topple a dictator, the really hard part is what comes after.
I understand the administration's desire to spike the ball. It has been an exceptionally difficult August and so any good news anywhere is a reason to celebrate. But I think the administration would be well-advised to mute any celebrations until we see how the next phase plays out.