Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Obama and Libya: The Bill Comes Due for "Leading From Behind"

Mitt Romney made a lot of news and cause some controversy over his attack on Obama in light of the attacks on  the US embassies in Cairo, Egypt, Saana, Yemen, and the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that ended with the deaths of the U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith, and two other Americans. He might have made a much stronger point had he followed McCain's advice and attacked Obama's broad Middle Eastern policy, because this messy situation is one of the results of Obama's infamous "Leading From Behind" policy.

"Leading From Behind" policy was thought to be a brilliant policy back when it was implemented. The U.S. essentially ceded its responsibility for Libya to its allies (the British and France). This policy bypassed the Republican-dominated Congress, avoided messy debates that might have roiled the democrats' liberal-pacifist base, and drastically increased the President's power over foreign policy.

It also provided some legitimacy to the rebel government. Unlike the governments in Afghanistan or Iraq, nobody could make an argument that the new Libyan government was a US-backed puppet government. It fought on its own (well, with help from abroad) to depose Qaddafi. The rebel government emerged virtually untainted from foreign interference. Plus, with the potential windfall from oil, the Libyan government could very well have sufficient funds and resources to get the country's house in order.

More importantly, however, it seemed as if Obama avoided the pitfalls that bedeviled George W. Bush. Unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. had the option not to be involved in the messy aftermath, notably the rebuilding of Libya. It is the ultimate "have cake and eat it too" scenario. No messy nation-building. This allowed the U.S. to position itself as a defender of human rights, a multilateralist to boot, with seemingly few to no electoral consequences for 2012.

This works well if the Salafis and other Islamists work and play together well. Unfortunately, they don't. The Libyan government is pathetically weak, because it doesn't have strong centralized security forces since the beginning of the rebellion. Remember, the so-called rebels were a motley crew of various groups, all united in their dislike (and fear) of Qaddafi. When Qaddafi fell, each ended up ruling their turf like mini-warlords. While the government is legitimate de jure, having been elected through a fair election, these militias still hold de facto power.

The Salafis that hit the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was one of these various militant groups (this is a must-read article). Why nobody could control these Salafis? Simple: there are too many militia groups nowadays in Libya, and all of them are busy defending their own turf and ignoring what happens outside their turf. Should they decide to either disarm or to help the government chasing/hunting other militias, they would risk losing their main base to an attack from one of their rivals. It is a mini balance-of-power.

Thus, the entire facade of "Leading From Behind" falls tumbling down. Libya is a total mess, because the government, while legitimate, lacks the requisite military power to impose order on the entire country. While many Libyans still have respect and gratitude for America's help in overthrowing Qaddafi, they must also realize that they are left on their own (a reprise of Egypt). What about the British and the French? It doesn't seem like either country is interested in rebuilding Libya. As a result, nobody in the international community is taking responsibility for the current state that Libya is in.

Could Obama have done anything different? Yes. He could have marshaled some resources to help strengthen the Libyan government. The problem, however, is that it was doubtful, due to his "leading from behind" policy in the first place. He did not clear the US involvement in Libya with the Congress first, and thus the Congress has no obligation to actually fund for the reconstruction -- unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, where in both cases, the congressional authorization also implied that the Congress would also approve money for reconstruction.

With the economy already reeling under a recession, Obama could not or would not ask Congress for the money needed. And if he had, Obama would have risked opening a Pandora box of further scrutiny over the entire "Leading From Behind" concept, which would not bode well for his reelection chances. Besides, Obama has no responsibility to do so. He didn't release the bull in the Libyan store, did he?

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