Off‐​Load Foreign Policy Problems, Don’t “Lead from Behind”

This article appeared on The Huffington Post on September 12, 2011.

As Muammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya experiences its final throes of agony, cheering has erupted among pundits and members of the foreign policy community in the United States. Two assertions are most prominent: that the Obama administration brilliantly executed a strategy of "leading from behind" — getting the European members of NATO to do most of the heavy lifting — and that the outcome in Libya proves, as supposedly did the Balkan interventions in the 1990s, that limited military actions for humanitarian goals can succeed rather than turning into Iraq-style debacles.

Both arguments are naïve, perhaps dangerously so. And the enthusiasm about Gadhafi's fall, understandable as it is, could lead to yet another unwise nation-building entanglement for the United States.

The notion that President Obama pursued a policy of leading from behind is partially correct. Unlike previous NATO military interventions, the United States did not insist on taking the lead. In fact, Washington pushed and prodded the European allies, especially France and Britain, to take primary responsibility for the Libya mission.

That approach is certainly an improvement over previous administrations. All too often, the United States has exhibited national narcissism regarding multilateral military ventures. The insistence on primacy was reminiscent of a caustic comment that the British ambassador to Washington made about President Theodore Roosevelt. The ambassador contended that TR was so much of an egotist that when he attended a wedding, he wanted to be the bride, and when he attended a funeral, he wanted to be the deceased.

The European allies probably had a similar reaction to U.S. administrations that invariably insisted on being the leader in every military venture. Obama's contrasting approach likely caught them by surprise. But their response was not entirely encouraging. Although Britain, France and some other European members of NATO ultimately took the lead, the United States initially played a larger role than it should have; most of the missiles launched against Libyan targets during the first few weeks of the war came from U.S. ships, and the overall commander was a U.S. officer.

Now that the Libya mission enters a new phase of peacekeeping and reconstruction, the Obama administration needs to move from a posture of leading from behind to firmly off-loading all remaining responsibilities onto the European allies. It's predictable that leaders in Paris, London, Rome, and other capitals will try to get Washington more involved in post-Gadhafi Libya. Financial pressures alone will lead to that effort, as the European Union grapples with its own fiscal problems, and European publics may be unenthused about spending billions of Euros to rebuild Libya. Public support for a lengthy peacekeeping mission that could put European military personnel at risk is equally doubtful.

Obama administration officials must firmly resist European blandishments to share the pain of trying to stabilize post-Gadhafi Libya. Developments in that country are far more relevant to the European members of NATO than they are to the United States. Moreover, Washington already has an overflowing security agenda dealing with such problems as Afghanistan, Iraq, and the growing drug violence next door in Mexico. And the U.S. treasury, awash in red ink, does not have the luxury of spending billions of additional dollars trying to help reconstruct Libya.

Any inclination by U.S. policymakers to involve this country in a peacekeeping/nation-building mission in Libya should be quashed by the experiences in both Iraq and the Balkans. In Iraq, what initially seemed to be a quick and easy victory turned into a multi-year nightmare that consumed $850 billion and some 4,300 American lives. The interventions in the Balkans produced two politically and economically dysfunctional countries, Bosnia and Kosovo, which are likely to remain international wards for decades.

There is considerable danger that Libya will turn out much the same way. Not only is the Libyan treasury almost bare, but the country's infrastructure — especially the crucial oil production sector — is heavily damaged and probably will not be fully back on line to generate needed revenue for two to three years. And then there are the bitter divisions between tribes in the eastern part of the country that always hated Gadhafi and led the revolution that ultimately ousted him and western tribes that provided most of his support over the years.

The outcome in Libya is, at best, only a partial and fragile success story. Those opinion leaders in the United States who want to make it a template for future interventions are playing a dangerous game. In Libya, another potential quagmire is beckoning to the United States. Let's hope that the Obama administration is wise enough to avoid that trap.