Bloomberg News

Clinton’s Visit to Tripoli Lets Obama Show Libya Results

October 19, 2011

(Updates with NTC head’s comments in last two paragraphs).

Oct. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The applause that greeted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Tripoli stands in contrast to the months of criticism weathered by President Barack Obama for a Libya strategy his opponents said amounted to seeking victory on the cheap.

Obama drew fire from critics in Congress and concern from the U.S. military for his March decision to use U.S. armed forces to “lead from behind,” having them play a limited role in the drive to force dictator Muammar Qaddafi from power. The lead role was left to the Libyan rebel fighters, with encouragement from the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League and sustaining firepower from NATO allies and Qatar.

Seven months later, the strategy has paid off: Qaddafi is in hiding, his forces have mostly given up and a new leadership council is looking ahead to democratic elections.

Obama’s vow to aid the Libyan rebels solely from the air -- without committing U.S. boots on the ground -- avoided American casualties and, at a price tag of $1.1 billion, cost less than three days at the peak of the Iraq conflict, based on data from the Congressional Research Service.

“I think, frankly, this has been a huge success for the Obama approach to foreign policy, where he recognizes that we have limited resources, we can’t be everywhere,” said David Mack, a deputy assistant secretary of state for the Near East in President Bill Clinton’s administration.

“You don’t always have to stand out in front of the cameras and beat your chest in order to be successful in foreign policy, and often it’s best if you don’t,” Mack said in a telephone interview.

Critics ‘Proven Wrong’

Clinton yesterday became the most senior U.S. official to visit Libya since rebel forces ended Qaddafi’s 42-year reign and ushered in an era the Obama administration hopes will mean stability and development for a country that holds the largest crude-oil reserves in Africa.

The results thus far, even though the conflict extended longer than the allies anticipated, prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to declare on a visit to Italy two weeks ago that “the critics have been proven wrong.”

Clinton was greeted enthusiastically by former rebel fighters who thronged around her at the airport, flashing victory signs, posing for photos and thanking the U.S. for support. During the 5 1/2-hour visit, she was greeted enthusiastically at each stop.

Still, along with applause, Clinton’s party heard the sounds of gunfire in the Libyan capital, and she stressed that the transition is only beginning as she warned Libyans against “revenge and score-settling.”

Alternate Scenario

The duration of the military campaign might have been shortened by a U.S. decision to send in a limited number of ground forces to aid the rebels, said retired General Jack Keane, a member of the advisory Defense Policy Board and former U.S. Army vice chief of staff.

“From a military perspective, I think it was anything but a success because we never used the right kind of forces to get the desired impact,” Keane said in a telephone interview. “As a result of that, the war was protracted and the casualties lingered on for months longer than they needed to.”

Even the $1.1 billion the U.S. Defense Department spent on the Libya operation as of Sept. 30 surpassed an estimate sent to Congress earlier this year that the operations would cost $800 million by that point.

Air Power

The mission also exposed weaknesses in the capabilities of U.S. allies in NATO, prompting the Pentagon to fill their shortfalls by selling them more than $250 million of munitions, repair parts, fuel, technical assistance and other support. The U.S. fired Tomahawk cruise missiles early in the operation to shut down air defenses, and U.S. warplanes and support aircraft provided attack, surveillance and support operations.

The Libya operation wasn’t the first time the U.S. and its NATO allies successfully deployed their air power to back up indigenous ground forces, said retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula. He cited the opening days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, backing the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, and a similar strategy less than three years earlier to drive the Serbian forces of Slobodan Milosevic from Kosovo in the Balkan wars.

“Modern air power eliminated the effectiveness of the Libyan army and provided the weakly organized and poorly equipped Qaddafi opponents the ability to defeat his loyalist army and unseat his 40-plus-years governing regime,” Deptula said.

Business Opportunities

With a new government, a modernizing Libya will prove a “tremendous opportunity” for American business interests, said retired Ambassador Charles Cecil, who served as charge d’affaires in Tripoli from 2006 to 2007. The potential goes beyond exploring for and refining oil to the projects the country is bound to pursue with its energy wealth, he said.

“It will create many, many job opportunities for American firms as Libya rebuilds the country and then moves on beyond the rebuilding,” Cecil said in a telephone interview. “Libya has the oil money to have first-rate medical care, first-rate infrastructure, first-rate communications. But those areas had been neglected under Qaddafi.”

New York City-based Hess Corp., Occidental Petroleum Corp. of Los Angeles, and ConocoPhillips Co. of Houston, Texas, are among American companies that had invested in Libya’s energy production before the revolt. Houston-based Halliburton Co. provided energy, engineering and construction services.

‘Lessons to Learn’

With no political parties in Libya, no labor unions and no non-governmental organizations that weren’t controlled by the regime, the emerging Libyan leadership will need help to establish the necessary institutions of a democratic civil society, Cecil said.

Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies research group in Washington, cautioned that, while the military operation in Libya may be nearing an end, the test of success is more long term. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, that depends on the prospects for a functioning government, unified security forces, stability and economic and social development, he said.

“There are important lessons to learn,” Cordesman said. “There are a lot more to come.”

Clinton offered a similar warning to the Libyans.

“Now the hard part begins,” she said after meeting senior officials from the interim National Transitional Council.

NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil told reporters in Benghazi today that Qaddafi still poses a threat. He “has not yet been captured and he still has the money that forms a threat to us,” Abdel Jalil said. “This is a truth that all Libyans should be aware of: Qaddafi is still alive and still represents a threat.”

The coming period will be “difficult,” Abdel Jalil said, due to a lack of security and enough funds to meet some of the country’s needs.

--With assistance from David Lerman and Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington, Ola Galal in Benghazi, Libya, and Mariam Fam in Cairo. Editors: Terry Atlas, Jim Rubin.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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