Does Muammar al-Qaddafi’s impending visit to the ash heap of history vindicate President Obama’s so-called strategy of leading from behind?
Some experts certainly think so. Steve Clemons argues that “Barack Obama’s gamble in providing limited support for a conflict, in which other countries played lead roles, now seems like a winning move.” David Rothkopf believes Libya marks “a pivot point in U.S. foreign policy.” Blake Hounshell writes that Obama’s “strategy now seems utterly vindicated.”
But Qaddafi’s fall hardly proves that Obama’s strategy was the best or wisest one to pursue. Obama’s critics make the plausible claim that Qaddafi’s ouster “could have been done much quicker and much easier if the administration had led from the beginning.” Of course, that claim rests on the unprovable assumption that a more assertive U.S. policy would not have created problems, such as a fracture in the anti-Qaddafi coalition, that Obama’s strategy avoided.
Obama certainly isn’t claiming vindication. The main theme of his brief public address yesterday was that the struggle for Libya “is not over yet.”
Perhaps Obama’s reluctance to claim victory is false modesty. More likely it reflects the fact that he understands the perils of premature evaluation. The ultimate verdict on his strategy in Libya will depend on what Libya becomes rather than what it escaped.
That’s certainly the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans cheered the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003. But subsequent events turned those cheers into disillusionment.
The White House can easily see why Libya might follow a similar trajectory despite its best efforts to write a different ending. Qaddafi’s rule by cult-of-personality leaves Libyans with few effective political institutions. Regional, tribal, and religious differences provide powerful fault lines for political conflict. Public expectations for a better future could be ripe for disappointment given that it will take time to rebuild the country’s economy and infrastructure. And the country is awash in weapons.
Those weapons are a threat to Libyans but to others as well—including Americans. Qaddafi’s arsenals appear to have been ransacked, so sophisticated weaponry could end up in the hands of terrorists.
Topping the list of fears is the fate of Libya’s supply of SA-7 missiles. These shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapons, which are small enough to fit inside a duffel bag, can target an airplane up to two miles away. Al-Qaeda used SA-7s in an unsuccessful effort to shoot down an airliner full of Israeli tourists as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya in 2002.
If Libya becomes a failed state or terrorist hotbed, Americans will be questioning the wisdom of both Obama’s lead-from-behind strategy and his critics’ lead-from-the-front strategy.
So the best answer to whether Obama has been vindicated can be found in what Chinese leader Chou En-lai reportedly said when asked what he thought of the French Revolution: “It’s too early to tell.”
Update. My colleague Micah Zenko tells me that while the story is commonly told—as you can see here, here, and here—that Chou En-lai said in 1972 that “It’s too early to tell” in response to being asked what he thought about the French Revolution, he was actually answering a question about the 1968 student-led uprisings in France. Not quite as interesting a story, but it makes the same basic point.