The removal of Muammar Qaddafi is hardly unwelcome news. The Libyan tyrant, responsible for (among other things) the Lockerbie bombing, the killing of U.S. servicemen in Germany, and for opening his country up to terrorist groups of all stripes for training, has been an on-again- off-again threat to the West for several decades.
Although the U.S. airstrikes in the 1980's forced him to withdraw back into his shell, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq terrified him into abandoning his own WMD programs, all indications existed that recent American maladroitness in foreign policy was emboldening the dictator to re-flex his muscles a bit, and try and take advantage of other developments in the Mideast.
That is not to suggest that the operation to remove him bore any resemblance to a well-conceived and brilliantly executed strategy. Nevertheless, as Victor Davis Hanson put it, the only thing worse than an ill-conceived war is losing an ill-conceived war. So the President deserves at least some credit for helping lance that particular boil.
However, more than most, the Libyan conflict opens up a range of questions and dilemmas which the next President, whoever it is, will need to deal with, preferably in a less stultifying manner than the current one has.
First, and most immediate, is the fact that no one can predict, with anything approaching confidence, what will happen in Libya now that Colonel Qaddafi (presumably he shot all the Generals) is no longer manning the helm.
Fear of an iniquitous relationship between the rebels and hardline Islamist factions leads to speculation that the biggest dog surfacing from this fight will be one intent on molding a virulently anti-western rouge state, disturbingly aligned with Iran. Others foresee years of internecine warfare creating a quasi-national terror farm, like Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal. On the other end of the conjectural spectrum, optimists see a bright future, a nominally pro-western democracy emerging from the dungeons of Qaddafi's reign. But it's anyone's guess.
Questions also surround the conduct of the war itself; the listless strategy employed by NATO, especially early on, coupled with America's tepid and unenthusiastic "lead from behind" approach, undoubtedly prolonged the conflict, costing much more than was necessary both financially, and in terms of civilian casualties, than a directed, aggressively pursued campaign would have. Only in the final days, when NATO air support took on a more serious tone, was relative success attained. Questions surrounding the wisdom of the undertaking aside, once the decision was made to join the war, it ought to have been treated as such. Any future President contemplating the commitment of his nation's armed forces will need to seriously examine the sagacity of a Libya-Kosovo style of circumscribed war.
He will need to do this while also dealing with a greatly diminished American influence in world affairs. The subservience of the U.S. to the UN, NATO, and other world bodies, and an unwillingness to accept a natural leading role in the conflict (a practical manifestation of President Obama's conviction that the U.S ought not to be any particularly greater than Britain, Greece, or Nepal) projected not the mature prudence he may have hoped for, but rather weakness - or at least trepidation perceived as weakness. This reduction in American leverage will be noticed in many other parts of the globe, and will pose a considerable challenge to the next President.
At home, concerns regarding the role of Congress in the commitment of U.S. military power will linger. The 1973 War Powers Resolution is almost universally recognized as an unconstitutional wreck, and the enumerated power of Congress to declare war is an anachronism - a legal and diplomatic tool held over from the halcyon days of brightly attired armies, and gentlemen officers formally giving up their swords. However, it cannot be denied that the intent clearly existed for Congressional involvement in the decision to go to war, and Congressional approval has been traditionally, and properly, sought by Presidents past. Someone, soon, will need to come up with a Constitutional fix to bring some legal clarity to the question, and ensure that the U.S. Congress trumps the UN on this matter.
Whatever the eventual outcome in Libya, it will certainly add to the growing list of foreign and security challenges that the next President will be left with, some internally created, most external, nearly all complicated by the nonplussed foreign policy of the last few years. It is therefore not beyond the pale to hope that the current crop of Presidential candidates devote a bit more than the obligatory 2 minutes a week to outlining their philosophy in this matter.