Obama doctrine: Sometimes, 'Leading from Behind' Works

Last Updated: Fri, Aug 26, 2011 11:43 hrs
Seif al-Islam Gadhafi

Going by the events of the past couple of days, I think we can safely say that Col Muammar Gadhafi’s has finally toppled from the throne he’s clung on to for 42 long years.  

Yes, he’s still purportedly spewing fire and brimstone from his secret hideout, vowing to turn Libya into “volcanoes, lava, and fire,” urging his supporters to “not leave Tripoli for the rats.”(Rebels claim he’s holed up in an apartment complex in Tripoli, though that’s yet to be independently verified.)

And yes, despite initial celebrations, violence continues and there’s a lingering sense of fear that the 69-year-old despot might have some last trump card hidden up his sleeve.

Yet, efforts are already afoot to establish a new government in the Arab nation and plan its future.

Out here in the US, these developments are a big deal for Arab Americans who have long been critical of America’s policies in the Middle East. For once, most of them feel, the US has done right by their native region. Now they are observing the developments in Libya with guarded enthusiasm.

“I know the US went in there partly for oil, but I really didn’t care this time. Gaddafi is crazy. He was threatening to go door to door and kill everyone who was against him and he would have. He needed to go,” said Rhonda, my Syrian-American journalist friend, when I spoke with her earlier this week.

Rhonda hopes Gaddafi’s fall will give hope to the dissidents in Syria where forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are carrying on a sustained campaign to quell all protests.

“I can’t bear to call my friends in Beirut because many of them are dissidents and their phones are probably tapped,” she says. “Whenever I call it’s like we have nothing to say even though there’s so much happening. It’s horrible.”

There are others, like Jalel, whose Libyan family was holed up in their apartment in Tripoli for weeks amid gunfire and bombing in the early weeks of the uprising, are simply relieved. In a surreptitious email, one of his relatives had described their ordeal “like the Diary of Anne Frank a la Libyan style.” Most of his family later escaped to Tunisia and are now looking forward to returning.

Back in March, when the US dithering over whether to join the NATO alliance, I’d thought Obama was basically stuck between a rock and a hard place. If it he decided to support the NATO intervention, he’d be accused of going in only to protect America’s energy security. If he didn’t, he’d be accused of turning his back on the people of Libya when they needed him most. “Either way,” I’d dismally tell anyone who cared to listen, “he’s screwed!”

Seems I was wrong.

Gaddafi’s ouster has been a windfall for Obamaat a time when the president’s approval rating among the American public is at an all time low.

Foreign policy analysts are already calling the near-victory in Libya a new milestone for Obama — a vindication of his long-standing conviction that instead of always leading the charge, the US should adopt a more low profile role in international affairs and work only in collaboration with allied nations.

Obama had indicated as much when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 2009: “America's commitment to global security will never waver,” he’d said. “But in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone.”

Which explains why, despite urgent calls for intervention from Libyan rebels in March, Obama decided to refrain from sending in US ground troops and let NATO take the lead.

This new strategy, that’s been christened “the Obama doctrine” in foreign policy —seems to address both the rock and the hard place. It stresses humanitarian intervention only with multilateral supportbut at the same time doesn’t shirk from keeping US interests front and center.

It’s definitely because of this new doctrine that the White House has been careful over these past few days to not claim victory and heap all credit on the people of Libya and the NATO alliance instead.

“The people of Libya are showing that the universal pursuit of dignity and freedom is far stronger than the iron fist of a dictator,” Obama said in a statement Sunday night, as celebrations were erupting on ground following NTC’s charge into Tripoli.

"The Libyan intervention demonstrates what the international community can achieve when we stand together as one," he said the next day. Over and over in newspaper, TV and radio interviews since then, top officials within his administration, including secretary of state Hillary Clinton, have been sticking close to this script.

There’s another reason for this show of humility. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, after all. A revolution, as we are seeing in Egypt and Tunisia, is only the beginning. It’s yet to be seen whether Gaddafi will put up another fight and we know little right now of what the new regime will be like. It makes sense, therefore, to celebrate with caution.

But the bottomline — there is cause to celebrate.

Ever since the NATO intervention began in Libya, Obama’s Republican critics have been criticizing him of not being bold enough. And after an anonymous Obama adviser labeled the president’sLibya strategy as “leading from behind” in an interview with The New Yorker in May, the president’s hawkish, right wing opponents have been repeatedly using the phrase to attack him for his supposed lack of leadership.

But in a world where the balance of power is shifting, where the US is no longer quite the superpower it used to be, perhaps a little less cowboy-style machismo on the global arena is indeed the best way forward for America.

And if the events in Libya and my Arab friends’ reactions are any indicator, sometimes “leading from behind” works quite fine.

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Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of Earth Island Journal, an award-winning US environmental quarterly based in Berkeley, California. In addition to her work at the Journal, she writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India.

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