MOAMMAR KHADAFY was the original global terrorist. A dozen years before 9/11, his bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 rocked the world, including New England, the home to dozens of college students and other young people who lost their lives. Khadafy’s death yesterday, at the hands of insurgents backed by NATO bombs, resonated from Tripoli to Lockerbie to Boston.
The defeat of this bloody dictator was achieved without the loss of a single American soldier. It cost relatively little in dollars, either for military expenses or foreign aid. It didn’t spark a backlash against America. It didn’t alienate allies, who, from Europe to the Arab League, were partners. And it didn’t commit the United States to a nation-building exercise.
It should thus be considered a striking victory.
Like many of President Obama’s foreign-policy successes, this one won’t be the occasion for much crowing. That’s intentional. The Obama administration believes the United States loses more than it gains when it advertises its military successes overseas. The administration realizes the significance of establishing clearly that the Libyan people were themselves primarily responsible for bringing down the Khadafy regime.
In this way, of course, the Obama team differs from its predecessor, which believed that projection of American power was crucial to deterring potential aggressors. In fact, it served mainly to rile them up.
Libya isn’t the only instance where a low-key, targeted approach achieved far more than a loud, complicated one. In Yemen, home to many anti-American extremists, the administration chose to work with an objectionable government to isolate the extremists. A new CIA base on the Arabian Peninsula is the result, from which a drone attack last month killed the fiery Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. It was the latest of dozens of attacks that have devastated the Al Qaeda leadership.
In the wake of the al-Awlaki attack, former Vice President Dick Cheney tried to claim credit for the Bush Administration, noting that the drone program was in the works for many years. But it was Cheney, of course, who advocated the military overthrow of governments in countries suspected of harboring terrorists. His preference, presumably, would have been to invade Yemen.
Can America handle a smarter, quieter foreign policy? The evidence is yes. Will Obama get proper credit for successes like the defeat of Khadafy and the dismantling of Al Qaeda? Maybe not — if only because a policy that doesn’t advertise itself doesn’t get applauded.
But there was nothing quiet about the celebrations on the streets of Tripoli yesterday, and nothing minimal about the sense of satisfaction among the millions of people who recall the horror of Pan Am Flight 103.