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How Will History Judge U.S., Coalition Intervention in Libya?

October 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
President Obama said Moammar Gadhafi's death "marks the end of a long and painful chapter." Margret Warner explores how history may view President Obama and the United States for intervening in Libya with Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations and James Steinberg, former Obama administration deputy secretary of State.
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JEFFREY BROWN: In Washington, President Obama said a new day has dawned for the Libyan people.

Here is his Rose Garden statement in full.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, the government of Libya announced the death of Moammar Gadhafi. This marks the end of a long and painful chapter for the people of Libya, who now have the opportunity to determine their own destiny in a new and democratic Libya.

For four decades, the Gadhafi regime ruled the Libyan people with an iron fist. Basic human rights were denied, innocent civilians were detained, beaten and killed, and Libya’s wealth was squandered. The enormous potential of the Libyan people was held back and terror was used as a political weapon.

Today we can definitively say that the Gadhafi regime has come to an end. The last major regime strongholds have fallen. The new government is consolidating the control over the country. And one of the world’s longest-serving dictators is no more.

One year ago the notion of a free Libya seemed impossible. But then the Libyan people rose up and demanded their rights. And when Gadhafi and his forces started going city to city, town by town to brutalize men, women and children, the world refused to stand idly by.

Faced with the potential of mass atrocities and a call for help from the Libyan people, the United States and our friends and allies stopped Gadhafi’s forces in their tracks. A coalition that included the United States, NATO and Arab nations persevered through the summer to protect Libyan civilians. And meanwhile the courageous Libyan people fought for their future and broke the back of the regime.

So this is a momentous day in the history of Libya. The dark shadow of tyranny has been lifted, and with this enormous promise the Libyan people now have a great responsibility: to build an inclusive and tolerant and democratic Libya that stands as the ultimate rebuke to Gadhafi’s dictatorship.

We look forward to the announcement of the country’s liberation, the quick formation of an interim government, and a stable transition to Libya’s first free and fair elections.

And we call on our Libyan friends to continue to work with the international community to secure dangerous materials and to respect the human rights of all Libyans, including those who have been detained.

We’re under no illusions. Libya will travel a long and winding road to full democracy. There will be difficult days ahead. But the United States, together with the international community, is committed to the Libyan people.

You have won your revolution. And now we will be a partner as you forge a future that provides dignity, freedom and opportunity.

For the region, today’s events prove once more that the rule of an iron fist inevitably comes to an end. Across the Arab world, citizens have stood up to claim their rights. Youth are delivering a powerful rebuke to dictatorship. And those leaders who try to deny their human dignity will not succeed.

For us here in the United States, we are reminded today of all those Americans that we lost at the hands of Gadhafi’s terror. Their families and friends are in our thoughts and in our prayers.

We recall their bright smiles, their extraordinary lives and their tragic deaths. We know that nothing can close the wound of their loss, but we stand together as one nation by their side.

For nearly eight months, many Americans have provided extraordinary service in support of our efforts to protect the Libyan people and to provide them with a chance to determine their own destiny.

Our skilled diplomats have helped to lead an unprecedented global response. Our brave pilots have flown in Libya’s skies. Our sailors have provided support off Libya’s shores. And our leadership at NATO has helped guide our coalition. Without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.

This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world. We’ve taken out al-Qaeda leaders and we’ve put them on the path to defeat. We’re winding down the war in Iraq and have begun a transition in Afghanistan. And now, working in Libya with friends and allies, we’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century. Of course, above all, today belongs to the people of Libya. This is a moment for them to remember all those who suffered and were lost under Gadhafi and look forward to the promise of a new day. And I know the American people wish the people of Libya the very best in what will be a challenging, but hopeful days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: What does today’s news say about President Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya and his approach?

For that, we get two views. Richard Haass was director of policy planning at the State Department in the George W. Bush administration. He’s now — it’s George H.W. Bush, I believe. I’m sorry. He’s now president of the Council on Foreign Relations. In early March, he wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled: “The U.S. Should Keep Out of Libya.” And James Steinberg was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration until June of this year. He’s now the dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Welcome to you both.

Richard Haass, your reaction to what the president just had to say. Did today’s outcome justify, vindicate his decision to intervene?

RICHARD HAASS, Council on Foreign Relations: I don’t think so. And I don’t say that to be politically critical, if you will.

I don’t think the case for intervention was overpowering. But more important, as significant as what it is we may have accomplished up to now, the biggest question is how Libya plays out from this point on. And, Margaret, history will judge this very differently if, say, in two or three years, Libya looks like a successful, thriving democracy, a market-oriented country. That would be one possible outcome.

But at the other end of the spectrum is obvious, a Libya that looks like something of a failed state, where sectarianism and tribalism take over, where essentially the people who agreed on ousting the old regime can’t agree on much else, where all these weapons that are running around the country fall into the wrong hands and so forth.

So I think so much of his history’s judgment will depend on how Libya looks not today, but two, three, five years from today.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Steinberg, you were in the administration at the time. What is your response to that?

JAMES STEINBERG, former U.S. deputy secretary of state: You know, Margaret, obviously, we can’t know what the future will hold. But I think you have to judge this by the circumstances that the president and the international community was facing, the prospect of a huge humanitarian disaster, the threats that Gadhafi had done, but perhaps more important, the unique coming together of the people of Libya and broad international community support from Arab countries, our European allies and the United States standing in support of this.

I think this is a real triumph for an approach to international affairs in dealing with these news forces changing the Middle East that is an important achievement going forward, will send a strong signal going forward about both the role of the United States and our ability to work with others to get that done.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Haass, the president said that also, that it was an example of the kind of partnership that the U.S. can have in the 21st century. The British and French led the bombing campaign, with the U.S. in a supportive role.

Do you think this, one, it vindicates that decision and, two, that it is a model for this 21st century?

RICHARD HAASS: I wish it were, but it won’t be, for several reasons.

Libya presented a relatively easy area to intervene. You have a very small population, very low population density, for example, very different than the sort of situation you see in neighboring Syria. You had an extraordinary degree of international support in Europe, throughout the Arab world.

But, again, that sort of support is not going to be recreated in other situations. So I simply don’t think this is a template. Plus, the Europeans, who played such a central role here, they’re cutting their defense spending significantly.

So, when I look out at the future, I actually think Libya is something of a one-off, and I think we’re kidding ourselves if we think the United States can play a modest role and other countries are going to be willing and able to play large roles in situations as tough or tougher than what we have seen here over the last seven or eight months.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Steinberg, do you think this is something of a one-off for the reasons that Mr. Haass just enumerated?

JAMES STEINBERG: I think each situation is unique, Margaret. You can’t apply the rules in any one case to another in a kind of mechanical way.

We have seen examples in the past when the international community with the United States and NATO intervened to stop the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. That was another case where we had the opportunity to make a difference. And not only did it avoid a humanitarian disaster there, but ultimately lead to the triumph of democratic forces in Serbia.

So I think we have to apply these lessons judiciously, to use judgment in each case. But I think the strong signal here is that under the right set of circumstances, the international community is prepared to act. And it sends a strong signal to others who want to use the kind of brutality that Gadhafi has done that they need to think twice about what the risks that they run might be.

MARGARET WARNER: Richard Haass, your point both in your Wall Street Journal piece and also here on this program in early March was, in the end, Libya just wasn’t a vital U.S. interest. There were more important countries in that region, that it was going to be too costly.

Do you still think it wasn’t worth the risk? I mean, as the president said today, not one U.S. service member was on the ground, and as Vice President Biden said, nobody was — no American was killed.

RICHARD HAASS: Well, they’re right, and it cost perhaps something just north of a billion dollars, which is, in and of itself, not going to break the bank.

But I think we have to ask ourselves the question coming back to where we began. It’s one thing to oust this regime for all of its flaws. On the other hand, the United States was able in the last few years to work with Libya in certain ways against terrorism and in particular against weapons of mass destruction.

Let’s see what takes its place. Let’s see in two or three years if Libya looks something more like Yemen or Somalia, where terrorists once again or radical Islamists can gain a foothold. And then we may need to think twice about it this.

This is — the analogies are everything from an incomplete in a course, to maybe the fourth inning in a baseball game. We just can’t judge whether this was justified. I don’t think the situation at the time warranted it. Our interests were not vital. I do not believe Libya was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe.

But, in the long run, let’s again see what it looks like. I think that is the only way we can really judge whether it was worth it. And the answer is, we still don’t know. And that tells you something, Margaret. We don’t really know all that much about the people now who are going to compete for power. And that’s one of the reasons I was cautious before this intervention actually began.

MARGARET WARNER: Jim Steinberg, how confident are you that the outcome will be at least better for the United States than having Gadhafi remain in power? And should that have been part of the calculation?

JAMES STEINBERG: Well, I think it was part of the calculation, Margaret.

And I think the way to judge this is to think about what would happen if we didn’t act. Richard is skeptical that Gadhafi wouldn’t have been true to his words when he threatened to treat his people like rats and massacre them. But his own record, even in the weeks leading up to the threats in Benghazi, proved that he was prepared to use that kind of brutality.

And imagine if we hadn’t joined, if we hadn’t responded to the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Arab partners, to the Arab League, which asked the United States and Europe to become involved, if we had stood back and simply let Gadhafi stay in power and carry forward. Think of the signal that would have sent in Egypt, in Algeria, to the people throughout the region. I think that’s the test.

We can’t be certain that we will have a perfectly smooth transition forward to democracy. But the one thing for sure is, if we had stayed back and allowed Gadhafi to succeed under these circumstances, that the impact — and the United States’ credibility I think would have been badly damaged, and people would have wondered why the United States wasn’t prepared to join with so many other countries when there was this unique opportunity to make a difference.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Richard Haass, what impact do you think this will have in the region in countries that you had identified as more vital U.S. interests, Egypt, let’s say, or Syria, or in the Gulf?

RICHARD HAASS: I think it will have a dual impact. It may encourage people in the street to think that if they push hard enough, they can prevail.

But I think, even more, it’s going to lead the people running these countries, like Syria, like Bahrain, possibly like Egypt, to dig in. They’re going to basically say, we live in a winner-take-all part of the world. We have got to hang tough, because the alternative is we are going to be ultimately not just ousted, but killed.

So my hunch is this actually will probably lead to, if anything, greater polarization and conceivably even greater conflict in the Middle East.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you think of that, Jim Steinberg? Could it? I mean, the images of — particularly of Gadhafi being brutally killed like that today.

JAMES STEINBERG: You know, again, it is speculation, Margaret, but I read it very differently.

I think it sends a signal that there is a different choice, that people like President Assad in Syria can listen not only to the United States and Europe, but Turkey and others, and say you need to answer the legitimate aspirations of your own people. If you and the people you care about are going to survive, the way to do this is to move forward on reform.

So I think that this could be interpreted very differently and could send a powerful signal that there is really only one safe way out for these leaders, which is to recognize that ultimately history is on the side of these democratic movements, and they can either help facilitate that or they run the risk that we saw today.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Haass, just really briefly from you, do you think it could say to these leaders, you better get a negotiated solution and get out of the country?

RICHARD HAASS: They don’t believe that a negotiated solution is in their best interests or their people. They’re not looking to lose power. They’re looking to keep power. So my hunch is they’re going to probably fight to the finish, if that’s what it takes.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Richard Haass and Jim Steinberg, thank you both.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you.