When the West pushed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak from office via diplomatic abandonment, Barack Obama declared that a victory for American foreign policy and democratization in the Middle East. After decapitating the Moammar Qaddafi regime a few months later through NATO in an undeclared war against Libya, Obama argued that this should be the model of interventionism, rather than Iraq and, presumably, his own decisions in Afghanistan. However, the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl writes today that Obama’s “light footprint” doctrine led directly to the sacking of the Benghazi consulate — and that we should expect a series of “boomerangs” in the future:
Is “leading from behind” an unfair monicker for this? Then call it the light footprint doctrine. It’s a strategy that supposes that patient multilateral diplomacy can solve problems like Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability; that drone strikes can do as well at preventing another terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland as do ground forces in Afghanistan; that crises like that of Syria can be left to the U.N. Security Council.
For the last couple of years, the light footprint worked well enough to allow Obama to turn foreign policy into a talking point for his reelection. But the terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 should have been a red flag to all who believe this president has invented a successful new model for U.S. leadership. Far from being an aberration, Benghazi was a toxic byproduct of the light footprint approach — and very likely the first in a series of boomerangs.
Why were Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans murdered by Libyan jihadists? The preliminary round of official investigations may focus on decisions by mid-level officials at the State Department that deprived the Benghazi mission of adequate security, and a failure by the large CIA team in the city to detect the imminent threat from extremist groups.
But ultimately the disaster in Libya derived from Obama’s doctrine. Having been reluctantly dragged by France and Britain into intervening in Libya’s revolution, Obama withdrew U.S. planes from the fight as quickly as possible; when the war ended, the White House insisted that no U.S. forces stay behind. Requests by Libya’s fragile transition government for NATO’s security assistance were answered with an ill-conceived and ultimately failed program to train a few people in Jordan. …
At best, Libya will be a steady, low-grade headache for Obama in his second term. But the worst blowback from his policies will come in Syria. What began as a peaceful mass rebellion against another Arab dictator has turned, in the absence of U.S. leadership, into a brutal maelstrom of sectarian war in which al-Qaeda and allied jihadists are playing a growing role. Obama’s light footprint strategy did much to produce this mess; without a change of U.S. policy, it will become, like Bosnia for Bill Clinton or Iraq for George W. Bush, the second term’s “problem from hell.”
Obama’s foreign policy reminds one of an attempt to apply a “third way” concept to interventionism. Bill Clinton did this successfully with domestic policy after his midterm debacle in 1994, and succeeded well enough that he won a second term and ended up the most popular political figure of his era. It also produced some good results, at least economically and arguably in governance, with important reforms of regulation and welfare that could have served as models for future policy.
Unfortunately, as we are discovering, there really isn’t a “third way” on intervention. Either one has to go all in, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan — with Obama going even more “all in” than George Bush in the latter case — or all out. In Benghazi, the situation has fallen into a kind of Mogadishu-esque gang warfare between terrorist groups, militias, and what little control the central government can provide. We prevented that from happening in Iraq while we trained a new Iraqi army and police force to handle internal security with a massive footprint of American troops, which ended up being a military battleground in our war against al-Qaeda.
Had we left Qaddafi alone, we would not have allowed those same enemies to now have a large area of safe haven in which to operate with impunity. If we wanted to intervene, and had done so with a significant commitment of ground forces to secure the eastern region of Libya where we knew those terrorist networks to be operating, we could have attacked them directly with our most capable resources, albeit at great cost and a years-long commitment of the kind that has clearly become politically unpalatable in the US. Either way, we would be better off than we are now.
Like Somalia, and like Afghanistan after the Soviet intervention and our campaign to push them out in the 1980s, the light footprint strategy has produced another cesspool of terrorist networks that will threaten us for years, if not decades. Diehl’s warning is well justified, and his prediction of “boomerangs” to come from Obama’s foreign policy is a rather safe bet.