Obama’s move SEALed and delivered in Libya

03/20/2014 5:59 PM

03/20/2014 6:01 PM

President Obama pulled off a master stroke this week.

He deployed U.S. military force in support of an infant democracy that desperately needs our help. The result was a vivid illustration of how the U.S. can put its unchallenged power to positive ends.

He did it, once again, by sending in the SEALs, the U.S. Navy’s famous special forces.

They seized a mysterious tanker that had skipped out of Libya with a shipment of oil that one of the country’s rogue militias was trying to sell on the open market.

The SEALs foiled a potentially game-changing challenge to the authority of Libya’s hard-pressed government — one of the very few in the Arab world to have actually been elected by its own country’s people.

The reaction in Washington: a giant yawn. Deafening silence from Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who are always quick to demand U.S. military action in situations where it will usually make things worse. Fox News barely noticed.

Nor was there a word of praise from the president’s liberal allies on Capitol Hill. Even The New York Times ran a perfunctory report.

The collective disinterest is even more appalling when you consider that the country we just helped is Libya. You remember, the place where our ambassador was killed by terrorists two years ago?

The post-Gadhafi government in Libya is struggling to survive challenges to its power from myriad armed militias, Islamist death squads and regional separatists.

All of these forces share an interest in keeping the central government destabilized and weak. None of them wants to see democracy succeed.

One group has tried to blackmail the government into accepting their demands by seizing oil installations and declaring that they’re going to sell off the resources under their control.

Oil is Libya’s lifeblood. The economy entirely depends on it; turn off the taps and everything grinds to a halt.

It makes perfect sense that the control of oil should rest with the central government. Take that away, and the government doesn’t just lose control over its most important source of finance — the very notion of central authority will also be compromised, perhaps fatally.

Last week, the opposition group used one of the oil terminals under their control to fill up a North Korean-flagged tanker called the Morning Glory.

The tanker sailed out into the Mediterranean, defying warnings that the central government would deploy its naval forces to block the ship from leaving the port.

Had the story ended there, Tripoli’s impotence and dysfunction would have been graphically exposed for all the world to see.

But Washington stepped in. Not long after the tanker arrived in international waters, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser brought the SEALs into range.

They boarded the tanker without a shot fired and sent the oil back to territory controlled by Tripoli.

Everyone has an interest in seeing Libya, a big country in a strategically sensitive part of the world, develop a stable and durable government.

Make no mistake: This was not “leading from behind.” This was an act of daring from a president who’s often typecast as too passive for his own good.

Everyone’s understandably preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine. But surely striking a blow for the cause of Arab democracy deserves our attention.

Christian Caryl is the editor of Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab and a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute. christian.caryl@foreignpolicy.com

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