Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Leading from behind

The situation in Libya at the end of its six-month rebellion/revolution is still very fluid bordering on chaotic, but it seems pretty evident that Muammar Ghaddafi has been deposed even though his current whereabouts are unclear.  The more than forty year iron-fisted rule of this very weird man has been broken and it is to be devoutly hoped that the Libyan people can now begin to live freely in a more democratic society created by Libyans for Libyans.

The rebels prevailed with the help and support of international organizations like NATO. and the UN and with the blessings of neighbors such as Tunisia which was the first blossom of the "Arab spring."  The help from NATO came in the form of air support, intelligence gathering, arms, and financial and humanitarian help.  Some of that help was provided by the United States as a member of NATO, but the U.S. did not take a leading role in the venture. Our military is, after all, still a bit preoccupied with those minor skirmishes known as Afghanistan and Iraq.  The real leader of the NATO effort was France, which has historical and colonial ties to Libya.  That would seem to make sense to anyone who really stopped to think about it, but it really, really pissed off a lot of Republicans in this country.

Among the most pissed-off were John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two chronically cranky old men, who issued a joint, very peevish statement on the subject.  The part of the statement which damned with faint praise the United States' part in the overthrow was what really caught my eye.
"Americans can be proud of the role our country has played in helping to defeat Qaddafi, but we regret that this success was so long in coming due to the failure of the United States to employ the full weight of our airpower."  (My emphasis.)

See, it took six whole months to overthrow a regime that had been in power for over forty years, but if the United States had just employed "the full weight of our airpower" then it would have been over in a week or so.  Sort of like our ventures into Afghanistan and Iraq, right, guys?

President Obama has taken a lot of flack from these people about "leading from behind" but it turns out that was a very successful strategy, and I think it is a strategy that is often necessary in foreign affairs.  After all, people in other countries do not want some foreign power to jump in and take over their efforts to bring about change.  They want to be in command of their own destinies.  But they will not soon forget who gave them assistance in their time of need, just as Americans have not forgotten Lafayette and Kosciusko.  (At least those Americans who remember their country's history at all.)

I think leading from behind fits perfectly with President Obama's inclinations.  It may stem from his experience as a community organizer where the most successful efforts usually come when the people of the community make their own decisions and buy into the planned action.  For this to succeed, it is often important for the community organizer to stay in the background.  This can lead to important and dramatic changes when dealing with other nations.  (Remember Egypt?)  It is a less successful paradigm of leadership in domestic affairs where a president needs to be seen as out front on issues and forceful in pressing for the policies and values in which he believes.  This, unfortunately, has been a failing of this president.  Leading from behind is not really a viable strategy in domestic politics.

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