Apparently Barack Obama’s lead-from-behind Libya policy has been vindicated. Or so we’ve been hearing from the president’s overjoyed friends in the media. The latest is David Remnick, who writes in the New Yorker, “Part of Obama’s anti-doctrinal doctrine is that it insists on the recognition of differences in a way that Bush’s fixed ideas did not.”
In other words, our thoughtful president, unlike our cowboy president, grasps critical nuances of culture, region, and politics. This, in turn, allows him to tailor his policies to meet each unique challenge—like Libya—on its own terms. Bravo. Except this oft-told tale fails to explain why Obama has handled every wildly varying case of threatened democrats—whether in Honduras, Eastern Europe, Iran, Egypt, or Libya—in the exact same way: indifference followed by tepid, last-second support for freedom.
Considering the thousands of Libyan lives lost to the president’s lead-from-behind strategy, his supporters’ boasts are indecent. Forget that they are declaring Mission Accomplished so prematurely as to make George W. Bush look insecure. They are claiming victory while people are uncovering mass-graves full of Libyans who died unnecessarily these past months. The fact remains that the U.S. entered this fight both later and more halfheartedly than we should have done. Back when Obama announced our involvement in Libya, he said, “As president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” Instead, he would wait just long enough to see them afterwards.
NATO and the Libyan rebels are taking down Qaddafi in spite of Obama’s reluctance, not because of it. Other parties haven’t been so lucky. Just ask Iran’s democrats. By the time the administration was shamed into taking the side of the Green Movement in the summer of 2009, Mahmoud Ahamadinejad had neutralized protestors with a couple rounds of shootings, rapes, and imprisonments. It’s worth noting that despite that absolute failure of American policy, Obama’s fans were praising his thoughtfulness and reticence back then too.
What happened in Libya is that this recent pattern of American anti-leadership and its trail of failure was finally cut short by our democratic allies. Nicolas Sarkozy, who had once called Barack Obama’s Iran policy “utterly immature,” led France in an inspired, but necessarily limited, imitation of American leadership. The U.S. was dragged into this noble mission kicking and screaming.
What’s wrong with that? As Robert Kagan recently said of America, “When we begin to cut our capacities so that we are not playing the role that everybody expects us to play, that is when the decline starts. And I really worry that we are talking ourselves into a decline that needn’t occur and that we are committing a kind of pre-emptive superpower suicide for fear of dying.” If we’re lucky, Libya was a mere cry for help and not the sincere attempt to end it all. Let’s not forget, our enemies are watching.
So what, exactly, was Obama right about? Being the last of our allies to join the fight against Qaddafi? Being among the last to recognize Libya’s National Transitional Council? Dragging out the effort by unnecessary months? Letting other NATO powers literally run out of ammunition before we stepped up the fight? Leaving NATO partners in a state of grave doubt about American reliability?
If there’s some victory to be had in predicting that Europe will exhaust itself in a protracted effort to cover for an absentee America then absolutely, the triumph is all Obama’s. But I’m not so sure our enemies or our allies will see it that way.