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On Libya, Obama fails the 3 a.m. test. What would President Hillary Clinton have done?

Would President Hillary Clinton have waited weeks to come to the aid of Libya's freedom fighters?

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If Hillary Rodham Clinton were president...

Would the US have dithered for weeks before coming to the aid of Libya’s embattled freedom fighters?

Could aided “rebels” have succeeded in neutralizing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the mass murderer of innocent airline passengers and now his own people, either politically or physically, thus saving many lives?

These are intriguing questions as we debate the reluctant decisionmaking of President Obama, and the wrangling of his advisers as Libya burned and wept.

His national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, warned that Libya was not of vital strategic interest to the United States. (But what of humanitarian interest?)

Senior Pentagon officials cautioned that constructing a “no-fly” operation would take much planning and time. (So how, in 1986, when Libya fired an SA-5 missile at a carrier-based US aircraft, did the US manage in a matter of hours to sink or damage three Libyan warships and knock out onshore Libyan radar and missile-launching sites?)

Clinton convinced Obama to act

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According to astute reporting by The New York Times, it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with like-minded aides, who finally convinced Mr. Obama that the time for action rather than words had come.

During the presidential election campaign, then presidential candidate Clinton harshly charged that Obama would, as president, be unqualified to handle the “3 a.m. crisis call.”

That rancor has since eroded, and Secretary Clinton has long been a loyal public supporter of the president’s conduct of foreign affairs.

But she also told CNN recently that she would not remain in the post of secretary of State if Obama is reelected to a second presidential term in 2012. Friends say she is “tired.” It is thus tempting to speculate at what juncture of the Libyan crisis might she have handled things differently had she won the presidency.

Time will judge Obama's role in Libya

As is the fate of incumbents, Obama has been criticized from all quarters of the political spectrum variously for tackling the Libyan crisis too late, for getting into it at all, for not sufficiently consulting Congress, for not adequately addressing the American people, and for continuing his travels to Latin America when as commander in chief he might have better stayed in Washington.

In time, his role will be clarified as either a masterly diplomatic orchestration avoiding the stigma of heavy-handed American invasion of a third Middle Eastern land, or a shameful default of American leadership in favor of France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy led the charge.

What is clear is that whatever the multinational coloration of the military effort, its main force was American.

When the initial barrage of more than 100 sea-launched missiles against Libyan air defenses were all American except two, there cannot be much doubt about the size and power of the US military component.

Should be little question on ultimate goal

Nor, for a president who has talked grandly about freedom for Muslim lands, should there be much question about the ultimate goal. The United Nations justification broadly calls for steps to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi. Obama has asserted that Qaddafi must go.

Whether that means step down, leave the country, be captured and sent to the International Criminal Court as a war criminal, or be killed, is left to the imagination. But clearly the neutralization of Qaddafi in one way or another is the most effective way to protect civilians and give them freedom.

In World War II, my father was conscripted into the British Army and spent three years in North Africa, much of it in Libya confronting Rommel’s German legions.

As a boy I had earnest talks with him about having to kill. (He said his conscience told him he would if it were “the nearest right.”) I think he did not see himself as fighting Germans but as fighting for all kinds of people whose freedom was threatened by Hitler. If he were alive today, I think he’d be on the side of freedom for Libyans.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, writes a biweekly column.

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