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The Libyan precedent is not a hopeful one for Syria

Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both. After Qaddafi’s fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. ...

Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images
Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images
Allan Tannenbaum-Pool/Getty Images

Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both.

After Qaddafi's fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. power more effectively than previous administrations, something an advisor subsequently branded as a "lead from behind" approach. Even though Libya is still an unfinished project, if you talk to enough Obamaphiles as I do, sooner or later the Libya model will be touted again, especially the dramatic comparison of how low cost Libya was compared to Iraq.

It was low cost, at least for the United States, but as for a model, it may be a precedent for doing nothing in the future -- at least that is the impression one gets from the latest reporting on Syria. Apparently, the White House has told Syrian rebels that they are on their own, that the United States will not be assisting them further, and so Assad may be on track to accomplish what Qaddafi could not: kill enough of his own citizens fast enough to defeat the rebellion before outsiders can intervene to tip the balance in favor of the "right side of history."

Was the Libya mission a model for an Obama doctrine on the use of force or was it just a one-off pick-up game? It appears it may have been both.

After Qaddafi’s fall, the White House was keen to tout the Libya operation as a perfect exemplar of how the Obama administration could wield U.S. power more effectively than previous administrations, something an advisor subsequently branded as a "lead from behind" approach. Even though Libya is still an unfinished project, if you talk to enough Obamaphiles as I do, sooner or later the Libya model will be touted again, especially the dramatic comparison of how low cost Libya was compared to Iraq.

It was low cost, at least for the United States, but as for a model, it may be a precedent for doing nothing in the future — at least that is the impression one gets from the latest reporting on Syria. Apparently, the White House has told Syrian rebels that they are on their own, that the United States will not be assisting them further, and so Assad may be on track to accomplish what Qaddafi could not: kill enough of his own citizens fast enough to defeat the rebellion before outsiders can intervene to tip the balance in favor of the "right side of history."

In this, the Obama administration may be following the Libyan precedent to the letter. The problem with "leading from behind" is that it really means "following another leader." In the Libyan case, the real leaders were the Europeans, especially the French and British. They led, Obama followed, and Qaddafi fell.

On Syria, no one is leading, not yet anyway. Perhaps the cross-border violence will finally prod Turkey into leading and, if so, perhaps the "Libyan model" will lead the Obama administration into acting. But until then, the Libyan lesson may simply be this: When no one leads, no one follows, and when no one follows, the international community does not act.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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