Did Obama Win The War in Libya?

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Close up of a portrait of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi set on fire by demonstrators during a protest outside the Libyan embassy in Ankara on August 22, 2011.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs Magazine and author of How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, looked at the situation in Libya and the implications for Syria.

Can Obama call it a win?

The Gadhafi regime is teetering; can the Obama regime celebrate?

U.S. involvement in Libya has been a strange affair, one that got Americans (and politicians) looking up the definition of "war." We wondered whether to call it one. Now we can wonder whether to call it a win. Gideon Rose said that how you answer that question probably depends on what you think of President Obama. 

His detractors will look to the length of time that this took compared to what he originally promised and say, 'You know what, this is still a defeat for you, or at least not a major victory.'

By Rose's estimate, Obama was somewhat connected with the rebels' success, and the administration was lucky to have gotten this outcome without even more American involvement. He compared it to the killing of Osama bin Laden in that it will ultimately look good for the president, but noted that victory in Libya would be fraught with new concerns that could undermine the entire operation.

People will be able to say Obama got rid of Gadhafi, but for the Libyans this story is beginning rather than ending...It will be an interesting question whether Libyans can maintain any kind of stability themselves. If they can't, the West will really have to face the more difficult question of whether we go in on the ground at all to maintain order.

What a new Libya could look like

Rose cautioned that despite all appearances, Gadhafi's rule has not come to an end just yet. That would only come with his exile, his capture, or his death. "When that happens, it will be the start of a new era in Libya," Rose said. "The question nobody has an answer to is, what will that era look like?"

There's at least one good omen, Rose added, pointing to the uprisings coming from within Tripoli in recent days.

It's a good sign that it wasn't just people from outside Tripoli coming in and dominating as the winners. You have some people inside Tripoli who can now say, 'Hey, we were part of this too, it was something of a popular revolution, and now we can have a national unity government rather than just have one group or one region dominate the rest.'

...and then there's Syria

The dominoes, they wobble. On the heels of the Libyan uprisings come fresh concerns about the situation in Syria; just last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for the resignation of President Bashar Assad while also claiming that the U.S. would not pursue military action in that country. Gideon Rose said nobody wants to touch Syria, the nation being in such a mess and order being so difficult to maintain. But finally, he said, the Obama administration has the right idea about what to do.

They're trying to get somewhat ahead of history; they're no longer trying to work with Assad—which was always a chump's game, it seems to me—and they're trying to help shape the transition from an Assad regime to a post-Assad regime. It will probably end up looking, if we can avoid civil war, something a little bit like Iraq today: a messy quasi-democracy with several parties jockeying for power, not particularly fair or attractive, but better than it was.