Is Barack Obama Still Weak After Toppling Muammar Gaddafi's Regime?

Michael Tomasky says “leading from behind” doesn’t look so bad after Gaddafi’s death.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photos

Hey, suddenly “leading from behind” is looking pretty good, isn’t it? This instantly infamous phrase, spit like rusty nails out of the mouths of neocons and other foreign-policy bigwigs ever since it appeared in that New Yorker article, may have been an unfortunate locution in this age of instant TV analysis (including some by people who probably couldn’t place Libya on a map). But it described a way of conducting multilateral foreign policy that has achieved electrifying results.

It’s worth stopping to realize that this Libya operation is, so far, not only a big success, but also a historic accomplishment in American history. Is it not the first multilateral and bloodless (as far as U.S. lives are concerned; admittedly not Libyans) intervention the United States has helped lead in its history to rid a people of a dictator and try to bring them democracy? It surely is.

Think it over. OK, there was Grenada, under Ronald Reagan. Maurice Bishop was no Sunday-school teacher, but whether he ranked as one of the world’s great tyrants or a guy who let Soviets use his airstrips and hassled American medical students is open to question, to put it gently. But the Grenada intervention was unilateral and was in fact condemned by our closest allies (the U.K.). In any case, let’s face it, Grenada was pretty small potatoes, certainly no Libya.

There was Bill Clinton’s restoration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in October 1994. But this too was unilateral, and it did not in any case result in a structural change in the nature of Haitian political life (as indeed the Libya intervention may not— we’ll have to see). Then there were the many interventions in our history that were certainly bloodless or nearly so from a U.S. perspective, but these were largely actions in which we were installing dictators: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Iran, and so on. Finally, there were cases in which we, as allies of dictator X, saw the writing on the wall and encouraged him to step down (the Shah, Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier).

But a truly multilateral intervention to rid the world of one of its most tyrannical dictators, undertaken with no loss of American life? This is a first. It’s a very big deal. I hesitate to say it’s a model. We should still be careful about hopscotching around the world picking off people we don’t like. And we can be pretty sure that in the future, evil dictators, even those who plan to kill every man, woman, and child in a rebel stronghold, will keep that thought to themselves, because it was that public vow on Muammar Gaddafi’s part with respect to Benghazi that compelled the invasion in the first place.

The only bad thing to say about this action has to do with the Obama administration’s legal justification for it back in June, when it argued for the sake of continuing the action under the War Powers Act that what we were doing in Libya didn’t constitute “hostilities”. That was hokum. It never became a huge issue, but it’s a bad precedent, and if a couple dozen of our people had died in some bomb blast, it sure would have.

But overall this was, if there can be such a thing, a model intervention. Now comes the part where we have to keep leading, this time diplomatically, to hope that civil society can get a foothold in the country.

Additionally, let us note how the Obama record on Libya compares with the neocon record. Libya was the great case of neocon hypocrisy in the Bush years. The neocons were supposed to be different from the Kissingerian realists, right? The neocons cared about spreading democracy and freedom. But all they spread in Libya was more tyranny, because Gaddafi did what the United States asked with regard to Sunni extremism. The Bush administration’s normalization of relations with the state was one of its true moral low points (quite a competition). Perhaps Gaddafi has renounced terrorism against us, but he hadn’t renounced it against Libyans, and it just showed that when push came to shove, the neocons could be as ruthlessly Kissingerian as the master himself.

And finally: how out to lunch do those Republican presidential candidates look now on foreign policy? Though the foreign-policy discussion got little attention, it was the most unhinged part of the last GOP debate. The Republican electorate may eat up potshots at Obama for being weak, but I doubt the broader public is buying it. A president who iced bin Laden and has overseen the ousters of two leading autocrats (and a couple of other minor ones) is not weak. Leading from behind, the sneerers forgot, is still leading.