It took nearly four months, but last week the Obama administration finally did the right thing: It recognized the National Transitional Council as the rightful government of Libya. That will allow the rebels to tap into billions of dollars in frozen Libyan government accounts in the U.S. Access to those funds is crucial not only for furthering the campaign to topple Moammar Gadhafi, but also for constructing a working government in Benghazi that can eventually be expanded to the rest of the country.
Yet the question remains: What took so long? Some two dozen countries-ranging from France to Qatar-had already extended diplomatic recognition to the rebels by the time that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was joining their ranks. Unfortunately, this tardiness is symptomatic of the administration's conduct of the entire war effort and exemplifies President Obama's puzzling "lead from behind" doctrine.
The administration, recall, did not agree to take military action until March 17, more than a month after the rebellion against Gadhafi had begun. For weeks rebel representatives had been pleading for Western help in the form of a "no-fly zone" to stop murderous attacks by Gadhafi's aircraft. Mr. Obama ignored those entreaties, allowing Gadhafi to regain his footing. Only when the revolt was in danger of being extinguished - with the Libyan army poised on the outskirts of Benghazi - did Mr. Obama finally support Britain and France in calling for action at the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council passed an open-ended resolution allowing member states to take "all necessary measures . . . to protect civilians" and "to find a solution to the crisis which responds to the legitimate demands of the Libyan people." The only step that was forbidden was the dispatch of "a foreign occupation force." Mr. Obama could easily have interpreted Resolution 1973 as a blank check for Gadhafi's removal - something he has called for repeatedly. Instead he has insisted on the narrowest possible interpretation, with the U.S. military playing the smallest possible role in its implementation.
Many snorted in disbelief when Mr. Obama later claimed that American action in Libya does not meet the definition of "hostilities" in the War Powers Act - and hence does not have to be authorized by Congress. But this is such a minimalist war effort that one can almost see the president's point.
Seventy-eight days into the war, in mid-June, the Financial Times published a telling comparison between the aerial campaign in Libya and the one in Kosovo in 1999. The earlier war was hardly "Apocalypse Now" - it was tightly limited in its own right. But after 78 days in Kosovo, NATO allies had committed 1,100 aircraft and flown 38,004 sorties. By contrast, in Libya NATO had sent just 250 aircraft and flown 11,107 sorties. Not coincidentally, after 78 days Slobodan Milosevic decided to relinquish Kosovo, whereas even after 124 days - and counting - Gadhafi continues to cling to power.