By Juliette Kayyem, on CNN website, October 20, 2011
Libya: A case study on "leading from behind"
Editor's Note: Juliette Kayyem is a former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government and a foreign policy columnist for the Boston Globe. She tweets @JulietteKayyem.
By Juliette Kayyem - Special to CNN
Even before confirmation of Gadhafi's death, the conventional wisdom had already taken form. First, that this was a success, albeit a delayed one, for the Obama Administration's "leading from behind" strategy. This was always a NATO effort, with strong French accents, and one which we would support but not manage. The fact that Obama was in Brazil when the mission started had symbolic meaning: the U.S. did not own this.
Second, that while Gadhafi's death is an important milestone for closure, the challenges for Libya will endure. It is a nation with almost no civil society to rely on, and rebels who are hardly unified.
But the challenges with conventional wisdom is that it has a tendency to turn into yet another cliche: a "best practice." Libya is a case study of ONE. Only one. It had a perfect combination of indigenous uprising so that NATO and other powers would not be the face of the mission; more importantly, though, Gadhafi had no backers, no friends, no country invested in his leadership. This is not Syria where Iran serves as the silent (or not so silent) partner; this is not Bahrain where Saudi Arabia has drawn a line in the sand. NATO, the Arabs and the international community could support the Libyan rebels because there was no counterweight. That is not true anywhere else in the Arab world. This is a case study on leading from behind, but not a new international doctrine.
While we can agree that Libya is a case study of ONE only, and not a template for other military interventions in the Middle East, this is a moment in U.S. diplomatic history when, in that country, political leadership, in the form of the Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the President himself, demonstrated what is best about American world presence.
It was not dominance; it was a facilitator, bringing together NATO and requests for assistance from the Middle East and from the Libyan rebels themselves, and, to quote Robin Wright speaking, from the Council of Foreign Relations, on NPR's "On Point", "It was a remarkable diplomatic success for the Obama Administration; we spent in Libya only what we spent in three days in Iraq."
So while the conditions were right for this kind of "leading from behind" as other commentators have called it, the current U.S. Administration saw clearly what its options were, executed them with considerable precision and finesse, in a limited manner, and achieved, of course with the Libyan rebels on the ground, the desired result.
Putting this narrative beside the narrative that is the George W. Bush legacy in Iraq, the comparisons make the head spin.
Bush's insistence in almost unilateral military intervention in Iraq cost thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands if the Iraqi casualties are included; it was done without a U.S. resolution, without the support of many countries who participated in Libya, against a dictator whose history with the U.S. presented no "threat" as compared with the Libyan dictator who killed hundreds of U.S. citizens in various attacks. And still, in both countries the achievment of a stable political state, with a judiciary, a civil service, a health care system, an education system and a charted future that brings competing factions into a healthy effective nation state are a long way off. However, far from participating in massive bloodshed of the people in both countries, this campaign prevented civilian casualties, whereas the Bush campaign rendered thousands of Iraqi deaths.
The Republicans will attempt to minimize the significance of this achievment, as their talking heads have already done, because it is a single "one-off" case, as some put it. Nevertheless, the quality and sophistication and restraint (not to mention the collaboration) of the Obama Adminsitration's initiative will last as a positive legacy for United States future engagement in the Middle East than the Bush initiative which has legitimately turned many against the U.S. and advanced recruitment among her enemies.
When American voters pause to pull the lever in the polling booth in November 2012, they would do well to reflect on the significant development, maturity and limited but effective deployment of force exercised by this adminstration on their behalf, and compare that with the kind of overkill that is one of the hallmarks of the Republican party, not only in foreign relations, but also in domestic policy.