For Barack Obama, “leading from behind” has never looked so … decisive.
With Libyan rebels celebrating in downtown Tripoli, and Muammar el-Qaddafi apparently in hiding, the president’s supporters are claiming vindication for a much-criticized approach to regime change in the Arab world.
Obama’s strategy amounted to staying resolutely behind the scenes throughout the five-month NATO air operation. To wit: Don’t say the United States is openly engaged in ousting Qaddafi. Don’t even concede the United States is going to war. Take cover behind a political imprimatur for action from the Arab League and United Nations, and let Europe lead the strike forces. Then modestly take credit — albeit only with a restrained statement on Monday from Martha’s Vineyard, where Obama is vacationing.
“I think this is a tremendous achievement,” said James Steinberg, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s recently departed deputy secretary of State, who is now dean of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. “The biggest factor to date is the fact that we [Americans] have not been the problem. People aren’t saying the Americans are trying to do regime change. Whether in Tunisia or Libya or Egypt, we are seen as supportive of others. It’s an obvious contrast with the previous administration…. And the fact that tyrants are not able to rally their people against us shows the nuance and skill of this. It’s working.”
Obama, with his administration in crisis over a staggering economy and mounting U.S. debt as he winds down two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has maintained that the U.S. was not at war in Libya because the American role was confined to a defensive posture of “suppressing” enemy air defenses, to intelligence-gathering, and to surveillance and reconnaissance capability (along with air-to-air refueling for NATO strike forces).
In fact, however, in recent weeks U.S. involvement has verged over into clearly offensive attacks using armed Predator drones on selected targets, especially as a desperate Qaddafi sought to quietly shift his troops to civilian hideouts in the final stages, according to NATO. “Yeah, [the Predator] had that added ability. It can take action on its own and did in a number of cases,” NATO spokesman Tony White told National Journal on Monday. “I heard the NATO commander [Lt. Gen. Charles Bouchard of the Canadian Air Force] say that the addition of the Predators was a huge boost to his capability.”
The downside of such a low-profile, stealthy U.S. role — which an anonymous U.S official described to the New Yorker magazine as “leading from behind” — is that it becomes that much harder to win kudos for leadership, a critical issue for Obama as he heads into the 2012 election year with his approval ratings at worrisome levels. “This wasn’t the best way to get credit, but it was a pretty good way of getting results,” said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, a sometime administration adviser and former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration. “It was smart in the sense that it generated a lot more action from the Europeans than would otherwise have happened. They really got the Europeans to share the burden in a way that the United States has never managed before. It minimized the administration’s exposure to criticism at home in a time of austerity.”
Obama’s approach also appears to have sown discord in Republican ranks. Leading GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney has criticized Obama for being “weak” and “following the French into Libya,” as well as relying too much on international organizations. On Monday, the rigorously anti-Obama editorial page of The Wall Street Journal joined Romney, arguing that Qaddafi might have been toppled faster and fewer people would have been killed “if America had led more forcefully from the beginning.”
But at an earlier point, Romney worried about U.S. “mission creep” and questioned the rhetoric against Qaddafi personally, asking who was “going to take his place.” Meanwhile, other GOP candidates, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., embraced a new isolationist strain emanating from the tea party movement and criticized the Libya intervention altogether, saying that events in that country didn't threaten U.S. interests.
Nicholas Burns, who served as undersecretary of State under George W. Bush, admits to having been “very skeptical” about the U.S. role at the beginning. “As a former ambassador to NATO, I would rather have seen us lead the effort militarily,” Burns said. "But I understand why the administration wanted to push the British and French out front. They were the ones who came to us and asked for intervention. I think it’s been vindicated.… I thought the president also made the right decision when the Arab League requested the intervention and the U.N. blessed it. Right now I think he’s got a lot of credibility with the Arab world and with the Europeans.”
Still, Obama’s edge over his critics may not last. It’s not just that Qaddafi’s fate remains unknown, or that the political transition conducted by a fractious rebel leadership under the Libyan Transitional National Council is almost certain to be difficult. Despite the president’s statement on Monday that the Libyans had expressed a “basic and joyful longing for human freedom [which] echoed the voices that we had heard all across the region, from Tunis to Cairo,” he’s not likely to repeat NATO’s feat in Libya anywhere else.
That’s especially true in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al-Assad has killed thousands of protesters. In recent days, Obama has called for Assad to step down amid criticism from some Republicans, but the president is less likely to find support for intervention from Europeans, Arabs, and especially from China and Russia, two permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Nonetheless, Obama can lay claim to his biggest foreign-policy victory since the takedown of Osama bin Laden in May — for the moment.
The article, "For Obama, a Nuanced Victory in Libya," first appeared in the National Journal.