Analysis: Gaddafi's fall boosts Obama, but is Libya a model?

Reuters News
Posted: Aug 26, 2011 4:44 PM
Analysis: Gaddafi's fall boosts Obama, but is Libya a model?

By Alister Bull

VINEYARD HAVEN, Massachusetts (Reuters) - President Barack Obama hopes the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi shows his brand of foreign policy worked in Libya and can succeed elsewhere -- but the model may be hard to reproduce.

Obama's preference to tackle foreign threats via painstakingly built international partnerships has been dubbed by critics as a doctrine of "leading from behind."

"Leading from behind assumes that there is someone to be behind," said Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"There is broad agreement that the United States should take a more multilateral approach and not directly intervene where there is not a clear reason to do so," Cordesman said.

"But what happens in the first critical case when there is not time to build a multilateral approach?" Cordesman said. "The choice, time and again, will be the United States and whoever can be empowered locally to meet the need. Or no one."

Whether it's confronting Gaddafi, dealing with Iran's nuclear program or responding to the political upheavals of the "Arab Spring," Obama has chosen time and again not to put the United States out front or to act alone.

One exception was the May raid to kill al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, which was executed unilaterally without informing that country.

Democrat Obama's approach diverges sharply from the often-unilateral action of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, particularly his 2003 invasion of Iraq, undertaken without explicit U.N. authorization.

But to some, it insinuates that this president has failed to exercise leadership.

White House aides have a different view, and are particularly happy to note that bin Laden and Gaddafi -- two foes who evaded Republican presidents - have now been vanquished on his watch.

"In the past there had been questions about the ability of President Obama specifically, and Democrats in general, on national security," said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. "We are assembling a very strong record, national security record ... of keeping America safe," he said.

The Obama administration does not use the word "doctrine," Rhodes said, but does think his multilateral approach is working, and has also reinforced confidence in NATO's ability to tackle such missions.


In Libya, Obama resisted early calls for intervention, acting only after the Arab League called for a no-fly zone. Washington took the lead in initial military operations, but then ceded that role to France, Britain, Italy and others.

Until recently it looked as if the Libyan conflict might end in stalemate. Instead, it has deposed Gaddafi and given Obama what will likely be a transient political boost.

But there are questions about replicating the model.

Obama has made progress, but painfully slowly, in mustering international condemnation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's violent crackdown on protesters. But outside the European Union, there's little appetite for stiff sanctions.

Russia and China have traditionally opposed intervention in other countries' internal affairs. And now a host of new or rising democracies such as Turkey, Brazil, India and South Africa, are further complicating diplomacy.

Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said she saw Libya as something of a special case that will be hard to repeat elsewhere.

"I think there were some particular circumstances that allowed this approach to succeed in Libya but I'm not sure it is a approach that can be successfully generalized," Dunne said. "I'm not sure, in dealing with the situation in Syria, that leading from behind would work. It seems the United States is -- slowly -- leading there."

In the first place, with Libya the United States did have strong partners to stand behind.

Britain and France were both assertive in taking the lead, which was particularly unusual for Paris, she said, and was driven in part by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's political imperative to act after he had failed to take the initiative earlier this year during the Tunisian revolution.

The second unusual factor favoring Obama's policy approach was the fact that Gaddafi had seriously upset his Arab neighbors over the years, fomenting trouble in the region and attempting to assassinate Saudi Arabia's king. This helped broaden the coalition acting against Gaddafi.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a multilateral approach could help share costs but also risked poor coordination between coalition members.

Obama also deserved less credit for the fall of Gaddafi that his counterparts in London or Paris, and would get less of a boost as a result, Biddle said. "Leading from behind? It was more like being pulled along from behind."

(Reporting by Alister Bull; editing by Warren Strobel and Todd Eastham; email:; +1-202-898-8392)