“President Obama, in his own way and with his own twists, continues to follow the core Bush policy of nudging and sometimes pushing nasty regimes out of power, aligning the US with the wave of popular discontent in the region even as that popular sentiment continues to dislike, suspect and reject many aspects of American power and society. . . .Don’t be distracted by the provocation in Mead’s entitling his piece “W. Gets a Third Term.” We can argue over that until we’re blue in the face because Obama hasn’t been forthright enough about his natural security objectives for us to know how congruent they really are with those that Bush wore on his sleeve. Mead’s decision to interpret Obama’s Libyan policy as a case of promoting Bushian ends through "smart" means is analytically useful, nonetheless, because it makes Gaddafi's demise into a case study in the virtues and the drawbacks of “leading from behind.”
“Obama is better than Bush at building international coalitions and managing the appearance of American policy in a contentious world. In Libya, Obama faced a constraint not dissimilar to Bush’s situation in Iraq. Both presidents got something from the Security Council, but neither got enough. Bush responded by defying the body over the failed “second resolution” on Iraq; Obama simply ignored the gap between what the resolution allowed and what the US needed, stretching a humanitarian mandate to effect regime change.”
Let’s stipulate to the essential correctness of Mead’s account of the virtues: Obama engineered regime change that would have warmed Bush’s heart without expending a drop of American blood, or very much of our treasure and reputational capital. Had he proclaimed his commitment to militarily induced regime change at the outset with Bush's swagger, achieving it would have cost us a lot more without securing us any commensurable benefits. Obama's Libyan adventure succeeded, on this view, not despite, but because of, his coyness and visible indecision. That's why they call it "leading from behind."
If Gaddafi's demise is an object lesson in its advantages, what are the drawbacks? Leave aside the usual neo-conservative grumblings about the dire consequences of the leadership vacuum in the international system that Obama's leaving in his wake. The drawback that most impresses me is the steep price we've paid in the currency of democratic legitimacy for the efficiency of “smart” regime change.
I won’t argue with you if you say that Bush’s Iraq and Afghanistan policies were unwise, or even spectacularly stupid. But it’s hard to contest their democratic legitimacy in light of the fact that Bush secured congressional authorization for both wars without concealing the fact that he was determined to take the Taliban and Saddam out with or without the consent of the UN Security Council. (The thesis that the Bush administration fraudulently induced Congress to authorize his prosecution of the Iraq war through intelligence that was not just false, but “cooked,” has never been more than a convenient fiction for Democrats and liberals embarrassed by their early support for the war.)
The Bush administration, you’ll recall, wasn’t exactly shy when it came to exerting its authority to promote national security without congressional approval. But Bush knew, like presidents before him, that he’d be crossing a bright normative line if he committed military assets to an extended overseas operation without congressional approval. Whether as a matter of constitutional law, the War Powers Resolution or best governing practices, we all took it for granted that military operations have to be authorized by Congress.
Is anyone really prepared to say the same reasoning shouldn't apply to application of military force in Libya? Any way you look at it, the bright normative line in our law and political culture between practicing diplomacy and applying military power isn’t quite as bright as it used to be. And the transient, and largely counterfeit, appearance of international legitimacy conveyed by the pretext that NATO was executing a UN Security Resolution is small consolation. There was surely more than a little fraudulent inducement involved in securing the Security Council's consent for the protection of noncombatants by military means and then willfully misinterpreting the plain language of the authorizing resolution whenever the Libyan insurgents needed a little boost on the battlefield.
Obama could have gone to Congress and been has forthright as he needed to be to secure its legitimizing consent for taking sides in a Libyan civil war. But publicizing that regime change was his real objective would have prevented him from securing the alleged benefits of leading the UN Security Council and NATO from behind. If you ask me, that's a steep price to pay for cashiering a tinhorn dictator on the cheap.