Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What is "Leading From Behind?"

Ever since the rebels overran Tripoli and Qaddafi's compound, pundits have been crowing about the "new U.S. doctrine." Fareed Zakaria, for instance, declared that:
"The U.S. intervened only when it felt it needed to. All of this suggests a very different model for intervention, which I believe is a vast improvement over the old, expansive and expensive model.

The new model does two things:
First, it ensures that there's genuinely a local alliance committed to the same goals as the external coalition.  This way, there is more legitimacy on the ground. And if there is anything Afghanistan and Iraq have taught us, it is that local legitimacy is key.
Second, this model ensures that there is genuine burden sharing so that the United States is not left owning the country as has happened so often in the past.
Compared to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Libya operation was a bargain.  It cost the U.S. about $1 billion.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan collectively cost the U.S. $1.3 trillion. In other words, success in Libya could be achieved at less than one-tenth of one percent of the cost of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  That's not a bad model for the future."
Or take these statements from Ben Rhodes, a National Security Official:
"The fact that it is Libyans marching into Tripoli not only provides a basis of legitimacy for this but also will provide contrast to situations when the foreign government is the occupier," said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for communications, in an exclusive interview on Wednesday with FP. "While there will be huge challenges ahead, one of the positive aspects here is that the Libyans are the ones who are undertaking the regime change and the ones leading the transition."
Rhodes said that the United States is not going to be able to replicate the exact same approach to intervention in other countries, but identified the two core principles of relying on indigenous forces and burden sharing as "characteristics of how the president approaches foreign policy and military intervention."
Here's why Zakaria and Rhodes (and many more) are wrong. While Afghanistan and Iraq are very easy straw men to beat up, keep in mind that Bush actually did everything that both pundits suggested, notably finding legitimate indigenous forces to partner with and sharing the burden with allies. And let's not forget that the circumstances of Iraq and Afghanistan are far different from those in Libya.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, a problem, of course, is that the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Saddam Hussein managed to kill virtually every popular resistance leader. Remember Ahmad Shah Massoud? Many would argue that had al-Qaeda not killed Massoud, the U.S. would not have had such a problem in Afghanistan, since he reportedly had a strong political backbone, unlike Karzai.

Furthermore, Bush thought that Ahmed Chalabi was very influential and important in Iraq, until events proved otherwise. Still, both Karzai and Chalabi were originally seen as legitimate, though in the end events showed that they both were second-rate leaders at best that did many things wrong and further exacerbated the messy situations in both countries.

In essence, both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were very unpopular and only had limited appeal. The problem is that the second-rate leaders the U.S. hand-picked were simply not up to the task. They alienated significant minorities, prompting them to gang up with other groups that they at least found to be sympathetic due to religious or ethnic linkages. Thus the Sunnis, seeing that they were being discriminated by the Shiites, ganged up with the al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia and the remnants of the Baathists and the Pashtuns flocked to the Taliban.

What about the idea about building an international coalition? Well, Bush invaded Afghanistan with NATO in tow. While Bush was not so successful in building an international coalition to invade Iraq, much of the resistance against Iraq war came from France and Russia, to whom Saddam owed billions dollars to buy military hardware, not to mention potential future contracts (and oil explorations). Ester Pan, of the Council of Foreign Relations noted:
Jubilee Iraq, an organization dedicated to reducing Iraq's debt load, says that Saddam Hussein's government signed billions of dollars' worth of contracts, mostly for military goods. This includes an estimated $4 billion in orders from French contractors for F1 fighters, air-to-surface missiles, laser guided missiles, attack helicopters, military vehicles, and artillery pieces, and $9 billion committed to Russian contractors for helicopters, MiG fighters, and radar equipment.
In addition, Iraq and Afghanistan are surrounded by hostile neighbors, who simply do not relish the prospect of successful independent states established next door. Pakistan always considers Afghanistan to be its proxy in its struggle against India. Iran, having been bloodied badly in the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War, is not interested in having a resurgent Iraq, especially one with U.S. military bases to boot, next door. Similar sentiments have been expressed by Syria, Turkey, and even Saudi Arabia, who are struggling to become the leader of the region. To put it simply, none of the neighboring states have much to gain from having a stable Iraq or Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Syria, Iran, and Pakistan have been doing a lot to ensure both Iraq and Afghanistan to remain unstable (e.g. clandestinely supporting the insurgents) - of course, the added benefit of bleeding the U.S. is a plus.

Libya is a "cheap" and a "splendid little war" because the Qaddafi regime was not as strong as people thought it was. The military was disorganized and demoralized - though we didn't know that until the rebellion erupted. Its neighbors prefer a stable Libya: they are already busy with their internal troubles, and refugees from Libya are the last thing that they want. Plus, nobody likes Qaddafi anyway. Which helps to explain why there's been little external push-back to the West's military intervention.

Yet, even though this war is "cheap," as I noted in my previous post, the United States is still providing about 75 percent of aerial refueling flights and at least 70 percent of intelligence and surveillance flights in the campaign. Without the U.S., there is simply no way the rebellion or NATO's efforts would have been as successful or effective. In essence, the U.S. remains a major, important player in the alliance. I don't think this fits to the category of just "supporting."

Thus, the entire argument of "leading from behind" is simply stupid. What Libya showed is that the Obama Administration tried to avoid making a commitment (thus the risk of political backlash should things go south), had no grand strategy, and then to play catch-up with events as they unfolded, which reminded me of this interesting (most likely apocryphal) quote by Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, "I must follow them. I am their leader."

In other words, thinking back to the 2008 presidential campaign, it is another "voting present" all over again. This time, however, Obama gave the podium to the British and the French and in the meantime tried to declare that there is no war in Libya. Thus, when, let's say in a year or two, the situation in Libya worsens, he could wash his hands of the fiasco. Still, it is doubtful that the U.S. could simply walk away without causing much bitterness in 10 Downing Street and the Palais de l'Élysée.

Thus, the U.S. was dragged into a war that probably this time it had less control over. Plus, Obama set up a precedent, where next president could simply ignore the War Powers Act, and nobody could raise an objection without being jeered as a hypocrite (except Dennis Kucinich, but he'd be gone by 2012 anyway).

I think Stephen Biddle got it right when he blurted, "Leading from behind? It was more like being pulled along from behind." Though considering the entire "no hostilities" debates, I will go further by saying "It was more like being pulled along kicking and screaming from behind."

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