Obama's right in "leading from behind" in Libya

Business Times - 25 Aug 2011

Obama's right in 'leading from behind' in Libya


REPUBLICAN lawmakers and neoconservative pundits have been very critical of President Barack Obama for failing to assert US leadership in the foreign policy arena. In particular, they have blasted his somewhat muddled response to the insurgency in Libya.

For example, Republican Senator John McCain from Arizona who ran for the White House in 2008 seemed to suggest that the US should have led a more muscular military effort in Libya aimed at deposing Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.

Indeed, Obama bashers on the political right have been quoting ad nauseam from a New Yorker magazine article authored by Ryan Lizza in which an administration official described Mr Obama's action is Libya as 'leading from behind'. America should lead from the front - not from behind, argue the critics.

But the administration official was trying to contrast Mr Obama's approach in Libya with former president George W Bush's strategy in Iraq. While Mr Obama's predecessor embraced a unilateral US-led and very costly (in American and Iraqi lives and in money) invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and 'liberate' the country, the current White House occupant has refrained from deploying US ground troops into Libya and allowed Nato allies France and Britain to take the lead there and providing them, at the same time, with some US air support.

Considering the very limited effect that developments in Libya would have had on core American strategic interests and the fact that the US military had already been embroiled in two full-blown wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mr Obama's decision not to be drawn into another direct military intervention in another Muslim country makes a lot of sense.

Instead, the administration agreed to join a multilateral effort that had first averted a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya and then helped the anti-Gaddafi insurgents to establish themselves as an effective military force that seems to be now in a position to gain control of the capital, Tripoli.

It is unlikely that the collapse of the Gaddafi regime is going to bring about the establishment of liberal democracy in Libya. If anything, one should expect more political chaos, violence, and perhaps even a civil war among the various tribes in the country.

But for the cheerleaders for Mr Bush's Iraq War to criticise Mr Obama for his performance in Libya is just very, well, neocon-ish.

The fall of the Saddam regime was also followed by political chaos, violence and a civil war among the ethnic and sectarian groups in the country. But the cost of that disaster was paid in Iraqi and American lives and US taxpayer funds. The invasion helped Iran and its allies emerge as the real winners.

That a post-Gaddafi Libya could be facing a similar outcome should certainly be of concern to the Libyan people and to some of the countries in the region that could be affected by the developments there.

But the point is that, as at today, the costs of the US military involvement in Libya amount to what Americans spent in a week of occupation of Iraq.

The US should now take steps to bring to an end even that limited military intervention in Libya and encourage the Libyan people to rebuild their country while expanding American diplomatic and economic cooperation with a new Libya.

Fortunately, American military forces are not going to occupy Libya anytime soon, avoiding the US-made post-Saddam military and political mess in Iraq. If there is going to be a similar mess, the responsibility for that would be laid squarely on the Libyan people and their leaders.

In a way, the basic idea of the US 'leading from behind' means that when it comes to civil and regional wars, Washington should encourage the local players that have a stake in the outcome - like the Europeans and the Arabs in Iraq - to protect their own direct strategic interests in a way that does not require direct US military intervention.

The use of direct American military force should be reserved only for those instances when core US interests are being threatened.

In Iraq, those US interests had not been threatened. But under the leadership of Mr Bush and the neoconservative ideologues, the US lurched ahead and used its full military power - with disastrous results for all concerned.

Unfortunately, those who insist on doing reruns of this kind of disaster are still around in Washington and they are hoping to return to lead Americans into more unilateral military adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere. They may even get back into power. You have been warned.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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