$1 billion for a dictator

Obama made a good deal in Libya, and he should seek others like it

War is never a clean affair. The recent action in Libya is no exception — in victory, the rebels have taken to killing pro-Gaddafi forces in retribution, including, it appears, Gaddafi himself, who was captured while fleeing his final holdout in Sirte. But the final outcome is as pure and as cheap a victory as the United States can hope to force on the modern battlefield. The Department of Defense estimates that from March to September, the Libyan intervention cost the DOD a mere $1.1 billion, with no U.S. casualties.

Critics were right to chastise the president for his weak initial foray into Libya. The U.N. mandate he secured as part of a left-wing experiment in the “responsibility to protect” doctrine did not go far enough to support the ouster of Gaddafi and his forces. Had the president refused to go further in support of regime change, the Libyans would likely still be locked in a bloody civil war. But ultimately, Obama changed course, putting larger forces into the conflict while avoiding an overcorrection. The result is the most cost-efficient liberation that the U.S. could have hoped for.

With luck, the success in Libya will put to rest the notion that the U.S. can force a regime change without adhering to Thomas Friedman’s “pottery barn rule” of “you break it, you bought it.” The U.S. does not need to engage in decade-long nation-building exercises after having helped rid the world of Colonel Gaddafi — U.S. advisors might remain on the ground through the end of the year, but the brunt of democratization can be born by the free men and women of Libya, not the American taxpayer.

The victory should also embolden Obama to act more forcefully in Libya-like states. The military advisors sent to Uganda to help African forces put an end to Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in October are a positive indication.

More significantly, President Obama will soon be faced with a decision of whether to intervene in Syria. For months, the Syrian opposition has refused to ask for protection against the government forces brutalizing them. Ausama Monajed and other leaders firmly believe that the Syrian government will fall before it becomes excessively violent. Their reticence toward western help has been reason enough to avoid intervention.

It is only a matter of time however before the Syrian opposition realizes its miscalculation. Bashar al-Assad is not going quietly as his Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak did. The U.N. estimates that 3,000 Syrians have been killed since the start of the uprising. The Syrians will switch from protests to armed revolt and call for protection before they let their dreams of democracy founder on the clubs and guns of Syria’s military forces.

When that moment comes, Obama should be ready to take the same steps he took in Libya. Already, diplomatic efforts should be underway to bring NATO members on board with a future intervention. NATO planners should be laying out a strategy to neutralize Syrian air defenses and work out the details of other combat eventualities. And though the U.S. ambassador to Syria recently had to leave the country for security reasons, the U.S. State Department should continue its conferencing with the Syrian opposition, both to keep close tabs on the mood of the resistance, as well as to plan for a post-Assad Syria.

One billion dollars is a cheap price to pay for the liberation of six million people. At that price, the United States could buy the freedom of the whole of the autocratic world with less than what Bush spent in Iraq alone. The president should be congratulated on his purchase, and sent back to the market to buy more.