NPR Marketplace | August 26, 2011
The U.S. participation in the Libyan conflict has been described as "leading from behind." Europe took a larger role in helping the revolution.
By Parag Khanna
The strife in Libya could all-too-quickly become a humanitarian crisis, and the rebels there are pushing urgently for the nearly $110 billion in Libyan money, frozen in banks across the world. The U.S. already has announced about $1.5 billion has been freed up in American banks. But the big push to aid the rebels has come from overseas. Europe's larger role in Libya even prompted one of President Obama's advisers to described the U.S. approach as "leading from behind." That phrase sparked an ongoing conversation about the U.S. role in foreign conflicts.
"Leading from behind" seems like a paradoxical approach to handling grave strategic situations like the Arab Spring, but it has no doubt worked in Libya.
To be sure, it is also a misnomer. American drones patrolled the skies and identified targets. American diplomats and military advisers have been meeting and coordinating with the Libyan opposition -- the Transitional Council -- for months. So in terms of hardware, the U.S. wasn't so much behind as doing the heavy lifting in the rear.
Still, we must remember that Europe too was in the lead. France was the first government to recognize the Transitional Council. That was a bold move, taken when the ultimate outcome was far from certain. But Libya is Europe's strategic backyard, and Europeans made clear it was time for a changing of the guard.
But not being out in front did something else. President Obama forced the Europeans to finally come to terms with their lack of military hardware and preparedness for this kind of conflict. Remember, Europe has been saying they would unite to confront such challenges for almost two decades -- since civil war ripped through the former Yugoslavia.
And fortunately for everyone, they finally did. Two months ago, NATO was still unclear as to who sat atop the chain of command. But quickly, operations plans and missions came together to tactically back the rebels town by town from the air and sea.
This was in important ways a template for potential future operations. First, Western on-the-ground commitment was minimal. There was not a single Western military casualty. Second, we took sides. There were and still are rifts among Libya's rebels, but NATO supported an array of them from across the country. Third, rebels did the storming: NATO helped them help themselves.
All of this may seem obtuse. Why not just force Gaddafi out back in February and avoid thousands of civilian casualties? There isn't a good answer. But Libyans perceptions of the West might be very different if we hadn't let them own their revolution. That might be the most important aspect of leading from behind.