Remember “leading from behind”? That was the phrase an anonymous administration official used in an interview with the New Yorker last year to describe America’s role in NATO’s Libya intervention. Reporter Ryan Lizza characterized it thusly:
It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.
Liberal internationalists and other supporters of the Obama administration embraced “leading from behind” as an assertion of their internationalist humility and rejection of the alleged unilateralism and “go-it-alone” ethos of its predecessor. Under Barack Obama, the United States is no longer going to throw its weight around. Except a recent NATO assessment finds that, far from ceding leadership to the Europeans, it was the United States that ultimately led the effort, and not to mention supplied the weaponry, for the mission that ultimately deposed Muammar Qaddafi. “The findings undercut the idea that the intervention was a model operation,” reports the New York Times, which gained access to the confidential report. The mission suffered from a lack of cooperation among the many allies involved and “NATO remains overly reliant on a single ally to provide [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] collection capabilities that are essential to the commander.” The United States has thus become, “by default,” the leading alliance provider of precision-guided munitions, which formed the bulk of the bombs dropped on Libya. The report also found that the countries participating in the mission did not adequately share intelligence and failed to provide sufficient numbers of military specialists to the NATO command in Italy.
These findings reiterate the long-standing reality that American military power makes the crucial difference in any “coalition of the willing.” David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy could have opined all they wanted about Qaddafi’s brutality; their speechifying was not going to make a damn bit of difference as long as the United States refused to take a leading role. The administration and its supporters can pretend that Libya was a “model intervention” to be replicated henceforth. It’s not.