Obama’s Obituary for Gadaffi and justification for his ‘leading from behind’ policy

October 21, 2011

President Obama offered an obituary on Muammar Gaddafi which permits reflection on American foreign policy of “leading from behind”. It indicates the dilemmas of leadership within the context of the death of a political enemy

The snippet of his speech above also provides links to various other videos of the President and Colonel Gadaffi.

Mardell’s analysis for the BBC

Mark Mardell of the BBC offered a thoughtful critique of President Obama’s foreign policy based on his speech which had been made within hours of Gadaffi’s capture and death. Mardell speculated on why the President spoke as he did. It indicates the dilemmas of leadership within the context of the death of political enemy. What follows is an abbreviated version of his analysis:

Gaddafi’s death will be a relief to President Obama and his administration. That’s on the fairly simple grounds that he backed NATO action, called for him to go, and now he’s gone. In an awkward phrase, coined by an anonymous official, the policy was “to lead from behind.”

The road that led us to this day tells us a lot about Barack Obama’s foreign policy as a whole, and its sometimes uncomfortable mix of idealism and realism. [This policy] is driven by a sense that, particularly in the Arab world, the US must step back a pace, not be seen as a bully, always hectoring or imposing its will using physical force.

Even though they didn’t shout about it from the rooftops, American forces were deeply involved. The total cost to the US so far stands at just over $1bn. Without American involvement behind the scenes it probably couldn’t have been done.

A good deal of muddle

The perception of the American position wasn’t all deliberate. There really was a good deal of muddle. As so often Obama took a while to decide what to do. Crucial allies like the UK and France were kept in the dark as some argued for intervention to prevent a humanitarian crisis, while others said that America could not afford, in any sense, another military adventure in the Arab world.

Fear of moral failure

In the end it was fear of being judged a moral failure that drove the decision. The president was told that thousands could die in a massacre in Benghazi and he wasn’t going to be held responsible for that.

But if President Obama’s policy has been a success on its own terms, it leaves others in the US deeply worried. They don’t think their country should encourage, cajole, help and guide. They think it should [be seen] to lead in fact and in deed. There are others who think that backing the people in the Arab world, however quietly, is paving the way for jihadist regimes that will be hostile to American interests.

Dilemmas of leadership

Students of leadership may find it instructive to takes these seven short paragraphs and make sense of them by identifying the dilemmas facing President Obama as he offered his public statement on the capture and death of his political enemy.

The English edition of Aljazeera summarised quotes from around the world. The article concluded with the words of Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to the US Congress:

“Libyans are safer now after Gaddafi’s death and the Arab world is breaking free. But never celebrate death of anyone, even bad people.”