Obama's 'Leading from Behind' Doctrine Revisited as Tripoli Falls

The U.S. chose multilateralism over unilateralism

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When President Obama addressed the Libyan rebels' seizure of Tripoli today, Yahoo's Laura Rozen notes, he made an effort to avoid President Bush's "'Mission Accomplished' triumphalism." But that hasn't stopped analysts from wondering whether the seemingly imminent fall of Muammar Qaddafi's regime vindicates Obama's foreign policy doctrine of "leading from behind."

The phrase, which was first used by an Obama adviser in an interview with The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza in May, is intended to describe Obama's decision to build international consensus for a U.N.-authorized military intervention in Libya and have NATO--not the U.S.--lead that mission. More generally, as Lizza put it at the time, "leading from behind" is an effort to further American interests and ideals through "stealth and modesty as well as military strength" because of America's declining power and popularity in the world. The commentary on whether Obama scored a victory in Libya generally falls into three camps.


David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration national security official, tells Politico's Ben Smith that we're now witnessing "a pivot in U.S. foreign policy where we have gone from a brief moment of sole superpower overconfidence and over-extension of our resources to something new." In fact, Smith points out that the resources the U.S. spent to depose Qaddafi--$1.1 billion--represents "a virtual rounding error at the Pentagon and the equivalent of a few days of involvement in Afghanistan." And former Obama adviser Bruce Riedel says that sum is appropriate. "The Obama administration from the beginning has wisely seen this as not America's baby to solve," he tells the Los Angeles Times. "Most Libyan oil and natural gas is sold in Europe--not the U.S. It's Italy and France that have the biggest interest in stabilizing this area."

Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell adds that Obama's vindicated strategy has an important psychological effect on Libyans as well. "It was Libyans themselves, with significant help from NATO, Qatar, and the UAE, who liberated their country from Qaddafi's grip--a fact about which they are fiercely and justly proud," he writes. Or, as Steve Clemons put it at The Atlantic, Obama gave Libyans an "opportunity to own the outcome" and tried to "tilt the odds, not guarantee outcomes." The international community should take that approach again as "Libya takes its next steps," he adds.


While National Review's Stanley Kurtz concedes that America has "escaped the potential disaster of seeing this intervention fail," he adds that Obama's "lead from behind" strategy prolonged the conflict unnecessarily by not "providing the close-in air support that could have ended the conflict far sooner." If "this is what it takes for America and its allies to dislodge an unpopular dictator in open terrain," he adds, "our more dangerous potential adversaries cannot be feeling much fear right now" (Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham made a similar point in a joint statement today). At The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid agrees that Obama's "excessive caution" prolonged the conflict, but for a different reason. "If the U.S. and the international community had intervened sooner--rather than at the very last moment when rebels were making their final stand--Qaddafi would have fallen sooner and without such loss of life and destruction," he claims.

The American Spectator's John R. Guardiano, meanwhile, says that Obama had better scrap his doctrine going forward, given that "history has accorded the Libyan people little opportunity to develop democratic habits and mores." The U.S., he says, must "act with dispatch to aid and assist the Libyan people. 'Leading from behind' won't cut it; America needs to set the example and show the way."


According to Salon's Steve Kornacki, the rebel capture of Tripoli suggests that "there was actually some wisdom to the 'leading from behind'" doctrine that the right so gleefully criticized. But he adds that he's not ready to declare victory for Obama just yet:

Gadhafi's fall hardly would hardly guarantee that history will smile on Obama’s handling of Libya. What would come next for the country is an open question, and the possibility that the void created by Gadhafi's departure will be filled by violence and chaos is all too real. There are plenty of people on both the right and the left who have insisted all along the U.S. had no business intervening, and the latest developments do not necessarily prove them wrong.

Politico's Ben Smith adds that while Obama may have been right about Libya, it's unclear whether his larger "leading from behind" strategy works. Obama's vision, he explains "holds few clear lessons for the complex Arab Spring and its most pressing challenge, the Syrian regime's bloody crackdown on its opposition. There, the NATO power with the greatest interest and the most potential to lead-- Turkey--has been unable to sway President Bashir al-Assad."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.