Libya: Huge Win for Libyans, a Win for Obama, Challenges Next

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Like Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein was also a horrendous thug whose arbitrary and brutal rule resulted in the deaths of vast numbers of his own citizens -- but there is no doubt that taking Saddam out removed one of the effective constraints on Iran.

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Max Rossi / Reuters

I understand the euphoria that is sweeping amongst those who had a hand in toppling a 42-year old regime.  The fall of Moammer Qaddafi -- whose bizarre antics ranging from rambling nonsense speeches he'd give at the UN General Assembly to his proposal to "abolish Switzerland" to his personal-digs at other Arab leaders -- could easily excite anyone who spent any time studying this tormenting figure. Yesterday, my friend Juan Cole tweeted this comment:

CNN finally fed in CNN Int'l on Libya. But guys, enough with the negativity! Why can't Westerners be happy about Arab revolutions?

Activists whom I admire at Liberty4Libya -- who have doggedly provided good coverage on Libya even when the world wasn't watching -- also have called for "positive" feeds after the fall of the Qaddafi regime.

I get this and understand the euphoria that is sweeping amongst those who had a hand in toppling a 42-year old regime.  The fall of Moammer Qaddafi -- whose bizarre antics ranging from rambling nonsense speeches he'd give at the UN General Assembly to his proposal to "abolish Switzerland" to his personal-digs at other Arab leaders -- could easily excite anyone who spent any time studying this tormenting figure.

Nonetheless, it is not wrong to set aside excitement to ask the questions of what comes next - - and also benchmark how different analysts, including myself, have done anticipating events and outcomes.

Saddam Hussein was also a horrendous thug whose arbitrary and brutal rule resulted in the deaths of vast numbers of his own citizens -- but there is no doubt that taking Saddam out removed one of the effective constraints on Iran.  The current Maliki-led Iraq government is weak and won't be a counter-balance to Iran for the foreseeable future.  That doesn't necessarily mean that Saddam should have gone unchallenged -- but one needs to take stock of the entire ledger, not just half of it that is emotionally gratifying.

I was skeptical of the Libyan intervention by the US and the rest -- but the Tuesday night when President Obama authorized action, I expressed cautious support, understanding that the humanitarian costs of letting the siege of Benghazi unfold outweighed other factors.  The US military raised concerns about managing a limited conflict where the authorization for action might lead to a long drawn-out stalemate with Qaddafi, who eventually might be able to dig himself a back door of support with nations like Russia, China, Brazil and India. 

The Pentagon's counsel in this case was important -- because the scenario the military sketched out could have come to pass -- and the impact on America's credibility would have been negative. 

As it turns out, the combination of intelligence support provided by the US, the technical and financial and logistics support provided behind the scenes by Qatar and the UAE, the military interventions by French and British forces, and more helped give the Libyan rebels an opportunity to regroup after early setbacks and push Qaddafi's forces back steadily and firmly to the battle inside Tripoli that we saw last night.  A key part of the success were the Berbers organizing their village militias west of Tripoli and pushing towards Qaddafi from one direction while the Benghazi-based rebels pushed from the other -- putting Tripoli in a vise.

Barack Obama's gamble in providing limited support for a conflict, in which other countries played lead roles, now seems like a winning move.  It's hard to replicate the conditions of Libya in other cases because Qaddafi had a habit of making unnecessary enemies -- most importantly in the Arab League, whose vote in favor of imposing a No Fly Zone over Libya was the trigger that led to everything else that has been possible.

But as in the case of those who cheered the downfall of the dictator Saddam Hussein and didn't ask questions about the bigger consequences of that event, it's important that after rejoicing that a monstrous dictator is on the run that folks get serious about a playbook that will keep the hopes and aspirations of the Libyan people moving forward rather than backward.

Even more so than in Egypt, Islamists are a powerful undercurrent in Libyan society and despite the apparent success of the partnership thus far between Libya's Transitional National Council and Western allies, these Islamists -- who were jailed, tortured and sometimes killed by Qaddafi -- will have a claim on power and are suspicious and opposed to a strong Western stake-hold inside Libya. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron offered comments minutes ago in which he said something very important:

This will be a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned process with broad international support. . .

I couldn't agree more.  What Obama's intervention accomplished was giving Libyans an opportunity to own the outcome.  Obama kept the US military footprint relatively small -- occasionally getting involved in unhelpful Western posturing that took the cameras off the Libyan rebels and putting them on the West -- but on the whole, Obama kept his game to one of trying to tilt the odds, not guarantee outcomes.

This is the same kind of approach that the international community needs to take as Libya takes its next steps.  Give support, technical counsel and advice if asked, but be respectful of the process that is now going to have to evolve inside Libya to include many players and groups that have been excluded from power for decades.

That means being there if needed -- but as Cameron implied, not making Libya's next steps about us -- but rather making sure that the leaders of the next government control their own reigns.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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