Qaddafi's Downfall, Obama's Victory

Criticized for getting involved in Libya, the president waged a quiet campaign that has dislodged the longtime dictator and sown discord among Republicans

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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."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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