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Endgame in Libya


And just like that, the stalemate with no end in sight broke wide open. Libyan rebels entered Tripoli in force on Sunday amid 'a feeling of jubilation,' as one observer called it, and although strongman Moammar Qaddafi's whereabouts and health weren't clear, officials around the world said the end was nigh. Qaddafi may be holed up in one of the sections of Tripoli his government still controls, or he may already have fled to a neighbor such as Algeria, but no matter where he is, he is the most impotent he's ever been in four decades of rule.

But as a new work week in Washington brought news of the rebels' weekend exploits, there were many questions about the next act of this drama. NATO commanders have warned that there's only so much help they can offer to fighters in Tripoli, given how difficult it is to distinguish between blue, white and red targets. If Qaddafi's forces include dead-enders who try to turn Tripoli into a Stalingrad-style last battle, it could put a bloody coda on the rebels' leapfrog success over the past week.

Even if most of the fighting is over, the rebels still need to stand up a civilian government, rebuild their country, and heal the deep wounds inflicted by Qaddafi and his cronies. Can they do it? The Libyan rebel alliance was the Bad News Bears in terms of its conflict with the government, riven with squabbling factions and barely competent fighters often equipped with homemade weapons. That may actually be a good sign for the future of the country, given that it isn't professional soldiers and their generals who have taken control, but people who may just want to go back to their lives but keep a stake in the new government for which they paid in blood. It's equally possible the new Libyan government could look like Iraq -- or the United States, for that matter -- barely functional.

There's also could be a political storm brewing in the U.S. in the aftermath of the rebels' presumed victory: Although it seems now like a distant memory, Libya was the big topic of controversy in Washington before this summer's debt ceiling farce. Congressional opponents railed against what they said were President Obama's abuses of power in committing American forces to the international intervention, beat their breasts at his contempt for Congress, and even sued him to stop the campaign. When the debt ceiling battle came along, opponents saw a more potent domestic weapon they could use against the president, and then Libya dropped out of sight.

So will Sunday's rebel advances bring Libya back to the fore as an American political issue? Obama's decision to intervene and then pull back, in part to placate his domestic audience and in part to keep American fingerprints off the Libyan rebellion, appears to have been vindicated. The battered president needs a win after the summer he's had, but don't look for his opponents in the presidential campaign or his congressional critics to give him any credit. The distance and comparatively low risk of the Libyan intervention has always meant the stakes for opposing it were much lower than for Iraq or Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Americans are in harms way. With Libya, opponents first argued Obama didn't act quickly enough, and then when he did act, they were outraged he had.

If Libya does become a victory for the rebels and, at least partially, for Obama, it will become a model for future presidents, and a case study for Obama's doctrine of partial, multipolar intervention. Just last week, Secretary of State Clinton said at her appearance with Secretary Panetta that Libya is an example of the way American power has to work in the 21st century -- a case where the U.S. led with a major role, but then dialed it back and forced the European allies who'd asked for help to take on the heavy lifting. American tankers continued to refuel their fighters; American unmanned aerial vehicles and, presumably, intelligence operators continued their work. American attack jets cleared Libyan air defenses for European warplanes to strike government targets. In retrospect, Obama's Libyan intervention looks like the inverse of the coalitions both Presidents Bush built to fight Iraq, and at a fraction of the cost, with no American lives lost.

But it was rough going there for the Libyans; it dragged on; and the end was never certain -- it still isn't. With successes like these, you wouldn't want to see a failure.

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