Libya, Obama and American Global Leadership


From an adult lifetime working on hotly contested foreign policy issues, I have a pretty finely tuned nonsense detector when it comes to policy questions being grossly distorted to score cheap political points. The NATO support for Libyans rising up against Gaddafi is a case in point. When President Obama curtailed the US role and called on Arab nations and our European allies to do some of the heavy lifting, Republicans trotted out their very best superficial nationalism.

Presidential candidates like Mitt Romney got so worked up and indignant that he barely gave a thought to the rationale for President Obama’s policy — the need for other members of the international community to contribute their share toward progress and problem-solving – or whether it might actually work. An unnamed Obama administration official’s regrettable phrase about “leading from behind,” quoted in a Ryan Lizza New Yorker piece, made the cheap thrill all the more thrilling.

At heart, most Republican arguments are the same: US policy needs to be firmer, more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute and insistent. More like we really mean it! It’s a pretty flimsy if not delusional premise: that the United States can bend others to our will just by being resolute. Exactly how will that work? How many places will we engage militarily? How many sets of sanctions will we impose? Will we need any international support?

Except for the right wing’s misplaced vanity, there’s no reason the United States has to position itself at the forefront of every important struggle in the world. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently about the brutal crackdown in Syria, having pressure on Bashar Assad come from others represents “the kind of world I want to see, where everyone else isn’t standing on the sidelines while Americans lay down our lives. Part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field.”

Which was precisely the Obama administration’s idea in Libya. In Obama’s view, a UN Security Council-sanctioned, NATO-implemented operation to defend Libyan civilians against Gaddafi was an opportunity to induce other nations like Britain, France, Italy (even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) to take significant international responsibility. In Monday’s Politico, the same Ben Smith who covered Mitt Romney’s late-March second-guessing on Libya took a second look at “leading from behind” to see if Obama might be onto something. (By the way, even a limited US role has entailed thousands of sorties by American aircraft.)

The Republicans thought they had a winning issue, but this is a debate Democrats should welcome. The right wing offers the idea that American leadership is a matter of ignoring the concerns and misgivings of others. They view it as a sign of weakness for the US to accommodate concerns or step back and let other nations take the lead. Mistrust toward the United States must be denied rather than defused, and international goodwill is a luxury.

Ultimately that will be a losing argument. Despite what the right wing says, suspicions about America’s intentions and leadership are not a matter of self-doubt but of international political reality. It’s something to be recognized and softened, rather than bulldozed through. Most Americans understand the need to convert international resistance into support. They realize the importance of getting the world’s help. As it’s often said, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Besides, for Republicans to win this argument, they have to airbrush the history of Bush-Cheney foreign policy into a glowing success. Think they can do that?

Related Stories:

Rebels Seize Gaddafi’s Compound But Where Is He?

Gaddafi’s Son Seif al-Islam Not Captured By Rebels

Gaddafi’s Last Stand in Tripoli

Photo credit: US Air Force


K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Brian F.
Brian F6 years ago

It is the mainstream republican thinking that we are the world's policeman and that we have the right to occupy other countries, that got us into these illegal wars and bankrupted our nation. Obama is guilty to for getting us in Libya. What's next we go to war with Syria, and iran? Ron Paul is the only candidate that has the courage and guts to tell it like it is. We need to get out of all our wars, bring our troops home now, close all military basses overseas, and put our people back to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, and paying down this massive 14 trillion debt. We are not the world's policeman and we need to mind our own bussiness. It's time we stop listening to these war hawk morons in the Pentagon, and start to work toward peace. Ron Paul, although a republican, and I don't agree with him on healtcare, is the only sane candidate out there, and it's a shame he has no chance, because he is more intelligent than any of the candidates including Obama.

Sound Mind
Ronald E6 years ago

Are those idiots still here pushing their Greed Over People Big Lie agenda?

Ernest R.
Ernest R6 years ago

@ Robert H Curiously, I see a lot more hate in your post than in Sandra’s. That is out of the Repug play book:IE accuse your adversary of whatever you yourself are guilty of. Is it working for you ?

Linda T.
Linda T6 years ago

Let's keep some reality in check. Republicans were for helping Libya before they were against helping Libya. Flip, flop, flip, flop. Oh how it burns their a$$ that Obama is a extremely competent War President and does'nt break our national treasury while doing it. Way to go Mr. President!!!

Siusaidh C.
Susan C6 years ago

Pretty comical, actually, seeing some try to pin all the wrongs on Obama. The US has been pushing Islamists against nationalists since at least the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeg in Iran. And that little story won't be over under Iran has been smashed on a par with Iraq. So what if it provokes WWIII.

For those who care about such niceties, Phyllis Bennis explains how what US/NATO (including to Canadian shame, our country) has done in Libya trashes international law:

Melanie K.
Mel;anie K6 years ago

Cheney calls Bush2 a "great leader" in his new book. Yeah. He led us into a financial disaster and took the lives of so many of our servicepeople and of civilians in a war of choice. "Great leader". Yeah, right!

roy m.
Roy Phillips6 years ago

that policy that being resolute will make others bend to our will has proven ineffective time and again, began in Vietnam and was the principal principle behind Iraq. that went really well, huh? heck, Vietnam has a better idea of how to handle these things. when they went into Cambodia to throw out the Khmer Rouge, they stayed only long enough to set up a framework for the Cambodians to chart their own course for the future. once elections were held and a new gov't was seated, the Vietnamese left. they didn't stay on for 8 plus years with no real end in sight. the GOP might want to take notes instead of taking potshots.

Pamela D.
Pamela D6 years ago

I think think Obama and Hillary Clinton imposed the right principles in dealing with Lybia. I congratulate them on excellent diplomacy. Let others that have a direct interest in the region take the front line; while the U.S. has your back. This thinking worked and I give all the credit to the current administration. If the GOP was in charge; we would still be agruing. Face it Catt R. is right; you repbulicans hate everything Obama does whether it's right or wrong; good or bad. It is so transparent, from an independent's point of view, the GOP is in beig trouble in 2012.

Grace Adams
Grace Adams6 years ago

I would like to see Gaddafi helped to a peaceful retirement with enough security to make sure he doesn't get assassinated. And all his sons should be helped to find jobs doing useful work where they will be safe and out of the hair of the Libyans.