Lessons From Libya: America Can’t Lead From Behind

Looking back, Obama's strategy doesn't work as a new paradigm of war

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U.S. Navy / Getty Images

Seen through night-vision lenses aboard amphibious transport dock USS Ponce (LPD 15), guided missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) fires Tomahawk cruise missiles in support of Operation Odyssey Dawn, Libya.

Nearly three years after an anonymous Obama adviser coined the term “leading from behind,” the Libya intervention—and the “new,” more humble, more multilateral way of war it represented—remains mired in controversy. In a not-so-subtle dig at the Bush Administration, the adviser went on to say, “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world…but it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.” Billed as a solution to both American hubris and American resource constraints, the Obama doctrine sought greater European military leadership, allowing America to accomplish its objectives while stepping back. As made painfully clear by the recent Senate report on the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks, Libya today is not the American success story many would have hoped. And yet the lackluster outcome notwithstanding, whether the “Libya model” more broadly can—and should—serve as the new paradigm in the American way of war remains less clear: Indeed, years after it ended, the war still raises three essential questions.

First, and fundamentally, were we actually “leading from behind”? True, French warplanes were the first to strike. And as former American Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Admiral James Stavridis noted in a New York Times editorial, U.S. “allies struck 90 percent of the more than 6,000 targets destroyed in Libya. And they did so with a precision that is historically unprecedented.” When Tripoli fell in September 2011, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were the first foreign leaders to visit the liberated country.

On closer inspection, however, the U.S. undertook the lion’s share of the military burden in the Libyan operation. U.S. cruise missiles took out the Libyan air defenses that allowed European jets to fly unchallenged, Americans flew three quarters of the tankers needed to sustain the approximate 100 sorties a day, and the U.S. quietly supplied precision-guided munitions when European countries ran short of supplies early on in the war. Moreover, according to The Guardian, the U.S. provided 8,507 of the 12,909 personnel engaged, 153 of the 309 of aircraft committed and 228 of the 246 cruise missiles fired. In Daalder and Stravidis’ own words, the “reduced” contribution was still “crucial and irreplaceable” and the goal was “to enable other allies and partners to fully participate in the operation,” not to let them lead in Washington’s stead.

Second, did “leading from behind” actually work? In theory, the Obama approach should have both increased the action’s legitimacy and accomplished American objectives without a major military commitment. With the searing experience of perceived unilateralism in Iraq in the rear-view mirror, the Obama Administration touted the added legitimacy of a European-led, NATO-run, UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya. In doing so, the White House hoped to prevent an international anti-American backlash. More concretely, the President sold “leading from behind” as a means to accomplish American goals without getting bogged down in a major war. The President pledged “that America’s role would be limited; that we would not put ground troops into Libya; that we would focus our unique capabilities on the front end of the operation and that we would transfer responsibility to our allies and partners.” Pointedly, Obama added that regime change would invite the mistakes of Iraq and “that is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

Despite the Administration’s best efforts, “leading from behind” has had diplomatic consequences all to its own. After abstaining from the UN Security Council Resolution after Western promises of a limited humanitarian mission, Russia felt betrayed after the mission was expanded beyond its original mandate. Calling the NATO intervention akin to a “medieval call for a crusade,” Vladimir Putin argued that Libya “confirmed our decisions on strengthening Russia’s defense capabilities were correct” and emboldened his opposition to other interventions, such as in Syria. Also secondly, the “leading from behind” doctrine has contributed to the perception that the U.S. was disengaging from the region. Combined with an unwillingness to enforce its red lines in Syria, an inability to respond to spiraling violence in Iraq, and a nuclear deal with Iran largely seen as defeatist, American allies, from Israel to Saudi Arabia, fear that America is withdrawing from the region. Above all, “leading from behind” still did not avoid anti-American sentiment on the ground, as fatally demonstrated by the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed four U.S. officials, including our Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September 2012.

Moreover, while the Gaddafi regime is indeed gone, Libya seems less of a success every day. Militias still control much of the country while Islamist groups have proliferated, recently assassinating a deputy minister. Oil production remains far below pre-revolution output and the prime minister recently threatened to sink any ship collecting oil from Eastern Libya, which remains under the control of anti-government militias. Following the brief kidnapping of Libya’s prime minister in October 2013, a Bloomberg News headline aptly described Libya’s predicament: “Libyan Prime Minister’s Abduction Caps Year of Mayhem.” If the Bush Administration deserved blame for not thinking through the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, the same critique applies to this White House as well.

Lastly, is the Libya model replicable in the future? Sadly, Libya was likely the best-case scenario for implementing such an approach. First, the operation occurred just off the European coast and, as a result, European planes could take off from their own airbases. Second, Libya’s topography—with vast stretches of open desert terrain between population centers—reduced the strain on intelligence and reconnaissance capabilities. Finally, Gaddafi’s forces were third-rate and had been declining for some time. If anything, European success was over-determined: If Europe instead faced a more robust enemy, in more difficult terrain, farther from its borders, it is doubtful that it could achieve the same outcome. As the 2013 version of The Military Balance concluded, rather than heralding Europe’s emergence as an independent security power, the Libyan operation “highlighted the limitations of Europe’s military capabilities.”

Three years on, the “Libyan model” does not herald a new viable option for American foreign policy. Whether we like it or not, there is no alternative to American leadership. Consequently, as the U.S. considers its future defense budget and global military posture, it faces a far bleaker choice: not whether to trade American global leadership for an equally benevolent European world order, but whether to give up its mantle of leadership and thereby create a void that can be filled by unfriendly, if not overtly hostile, actors. Whatever the Obama Administration might claim, foreign policy, like movies, plays better with a John Wayne than without one.

Raphael Cohen and Gabriel Scheinmann are PhD candidates in international relations at Georgetown University. This article is adapted from their recent publication “Can Europe Fill the Void in U.S. Military Leadership?” in the Winter 2014 edition of Orbis.