Gaddafi killed: A new kind of US foreign policy success

Interim Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil  and US President Obama at the UN, September 2011 Obama and the US have embraced the transitional Libyan authorities

"Wow", said Hilary Clinton as she was handed a Blackberry with the news out of Libya.

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."

Most Americans see Gaddafi as a villain. They too will be glad he has gone.

Despite a brief rehabilitation when he chose to be on America's side during President George W Bush's war on terror, most will associate him with the Lockerbie bomb: a crazy, slightly sinister man, almost a caricature of a mad Middle Eastern dictator.

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.

A less assertive America

Mr Obama's foreign 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.

It seeks to ensure that the US crafts alliances, and does not tell friends to follow.

This is reinforced by the pragmatic belief that America cannot afford to do everything, everywhere, and must choose to do only what matters most.

Inside the White House they will be pleased that Muammar Gaddafi has gone and the regime has changed. But they will be delighted that it will be seen by the world as a victory for the Libyan people, not the American president.

Obama deliberately took the back seat during the Nato action as well. He stressed that there would be no American troops on the ground and the French and British would be leading the air sorties.

This was partly for those reasons of the perception of American power. But it was also because President Obama was repeatedly told by security advisors that Libya was not a vital national interest for the US, even if it was for Europeans. So Europeans were left to take the lead.

For ages many Europeans have argued that the US should be less assertive, but when it happened it was uncomfortable for some.

For more than 50 years "the West" has grown used to the US being out in front. It is odd when it doesn't happen.

To cajole or to lead?

But let's not go over the top. 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. There have been 7,725 US sorties including 145 predator drone strikes. Without American involvement behind the scenes it probably couldn't have been done.

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.

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 lead - that it should be seen to lead in fact and in deed.

And if it doesn't it is not clever - it is defeatist, and will inevitably lead to a diminution of power. They may raise their voices, not today, but when the dust settles.

There are others still 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.

Making sure they are wrong is where the state department's focus is now. The coming weeks and months will not have the drama of the events that are unfolding. They may not even be reported in detail in much of the Western media.

But the US state department is deeply involved in how Libya develops, and that will be the true test of the success or failure of Barack Obama's policy.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

An ending - and a beginning

Mark Mardell says farewell to his years as North America editor, and introduces his new analysis blog.

Read full article

More on This Story

Libya after Gaddafi


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    the debate should have been about obama violating the trust of he will never admitt even to saying that it was his forgein policy to take out regime, or he will never use the word, won the war without loss of an american soldier, this will bring him closer to admitted he violated the powers given to him by UN...

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    what everyone calls as obama's sucess is actually , his violation the mandate he was given by UN, which was to protect the civilians and not to overthrow the regime...his cunningness to abuse the responsiblities he was given is seen as sucess of his forgein policy is encouraging him to repeat this cunningness, he should be held accountable for abusing the trust he waas given.

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Another BHO's foreign policy success:

    Tunisia's Islamist party, Ennahda, is claiming victory in Sunday's elections, the first free poll of the Arab Spring.

    Its main rival, the secular centre-left PDP party, has admitted defeat.

    Its main rival, the secular centre-left PDP party, has admitted defeat.

    So now you have it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    colonelartist (416),

    “Outdated sytem called democracy ...”

    We are waaaaaaaaiting for your alternative(s).


  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    Patients in government-run hospitals in Syria are being tortured in an attempt to suppress dissent, an Amnesty International reports (BBC).

    Another Obama Administration's foreign policy success?

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    powermeerkat, are you honestly saying that the Chileans suffered more under Allende than they did under Pinochet?

    Since I happen to know Chile very well and 1st hand - at least just as much. (kidnappings, "disappearences" also took place under Allende)

    Plus: Chile was turning into Cuba under Allende;
    that it flourishes today is in no small part thanks to Pinochet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    Libyan Transitional Concil stated that [secret] burial [ in a desert] was needed because decomposition of the [Qaddafi's'] body had reached the point where the "corpse cannot last any longer".

    Here's wondering how long the Transitional Council itself will last.

    As well as democracy in Libya, which is to be ruled by Sharia Law.

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    American foreign policy for Libyan's "Arab Spring was almost a ten!
    Our air power and drones(along with Nato) took out command and control.! That gave the revolution a reasonable chance of success-and
    without the loss of a single American life and a cost of $1B
    And your critical of Obama!
    As the overused cliche goes"you are entitled to your opinion where are your facts?"

  • rate this

    Comment number 423.

    JClarkson @421
    With Galileo!

    We've been 'thinking' thousands, maybe millions of years

    On 'democracy' - on-&-off - 2,500 years

    Each generation born innocent into 'a stage' of evolution

    Much to distract from questions, still many arrive

    Aiming to solve problems where others gave up

    With events comes context; with courage, catalysis

    Thinking, leadership & recognition, will deliver...

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    colonelartist (416),

    “Outdated sytem called democracy ...”

    As Democracy is a more recently created political system than either Monarchy, or Tyranny, what do you propose as an alternative?

    THIS should be amusing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 421.

    #420 "Thinking leads to Equal Citizenship"

    Not everyone is able to think, equally. I have explained this before. You can ask Santa Claus or Noel or whatever you call the jolly old man in your country, to bring you equal thinking for everyone. Let me know if you receive it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 420.

    colonelartist @416
    Democracy of God

    Ancient Greeks 'discovered' the idea of Democracy, rule by The People

    Not noticing slavery

    Medieval Europe made concessions towards the ideal

    Not noticing serfdom

    Modern West pretends to itself that it has Democracy

    Not noticing corruption

    Theocracies may think themselves above Democracy

    Not noticing thought-police

    Thinking leads to Equal Citizenship

  • rate this

    Comment number 419.

    Be it Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, British or American.
    Please dont disgrace the roman, chinese ottomon and british empires by adding america to the status of empire,the only empirish about usa,is the empire state building.Come to think of it china wasnt an empire. Read more about empires,they destroyed but they build up societies as well,usa on the other hand,just destroys just like mongols.

  • rate this

    Comment number 418.

    Giving and accepting a surrender are both risky activities. Things go wrong, people die.
    surrender is the most smoothest thing that happens during a battle....Ghadafi surrendered thats on the record, he was killed after surrender in the custody of the western allies...if now nato shakes its hands off the whole situation, then its the worst military organization ever to be created

  • rate this

    Comment number 417.

    In a world where we use special forces and drone strikes to kill enemy leaders I don't think we can be too critical over what happened in Sirte.
    And the world the new world was created by the west, so you must not be critical of your own creation, however, These were not the values that you claimed you had when you started on this mission.what happend to the beacon of light,or was it all lies

  • rate this

    Comment number 416.

    Outdated sytem called democracy,where liberals and conservatives can ally to form a government,where people vote for the lesser evil,where money and mafia can buy votes and put a mafia leader as the prime minister,the system has become the frankenstein monster,where people serve the system while it fails to serve the people.where money can create an image of a person and people vote for that image

  • rate this

    Comment number 415.

    America should mind its own business, literally.

    That should occupy Obama and his tea parties sufficiently.

    End of empire scenarios have always displayed emperors over-extended, with no clothes.

    Be it Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, British or American....

  • rate this

    Comment number 414.

    powermeerkat, are you honestly saying that the Chileans suffered more under Allende than they did under Pinochet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 413.

    the tragedy of Chile under Pinochet are well documented ...”

    And even greater Chilean disaster under Allende. Just like mega massacres and famines in China, North Korea Cambodia and USSR under Mao, Kim Jong-il, Pol Pot and Stalin

    PS. Their were also veritable massacres and atrocities after the victory of the French Revolution; although not many want to remember them.

    Amply documented

  • rate this

    Comment number 412.

    Zaheer Uddin (408),

    “... Perhaps sufferings of Libyans under Italy, the massacre of Algerians in the struggle for independence from the French, the tragedy of Chile under Pinochet are well documented ...”

    Yes, and it is also good that these rulers have been replaced.


Page 1 of 22



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.