Twenty years ago this summer, American cities staged noisy, flag-waving parades to celebrate the U.S. victory in a war we've almost forgotten: the Persian Gulf War against Iraq. The president at the time, George H.W. Bush, saw his poll ratings soar in the war's afterglow. But 18 months later, on election day in 1992, the victory parades were ancient history. The voters, impatient with the economy's slow recovery from a recession, turned Bush out of office after a single term.
In recent decades, victories abroad haven't mattered all that much in elections at home. So, while it's possible that President Obama will get a bounce in the polls if Moammar Kadafi is captured and taken off in chains, it's not likely to help him much in 2012.
Still, the war in Libya has been a success, and Obama deserves some of the credit. In March, after a ragtag band of Libyans in the eastern city of Benghazi rebelled against Kadafi's government, the U.N. Security Council and NATO were deadlocked over what to do. France and Britain wanted to intervene, but many Americans (including, notably, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates) were wary of wading into another war while U.S. troops were still mired in Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama aides came up with an innovative proposal: Let the French and British take the lead, provide American support only where needed and rule out any thought of boots on the ground.
NATO stretched its U.N. mandate to protect Libyan civilians beyond all recognition, providing direct support to opposition forces on the ground. But the alliance suffered no casualties and the cost was relatively modest. (The cost of U.S. operations has been estimated at a little more than $1.2 billion so far, less than the cost of a single week of the war in Afghanistan.)
In the end, the United States had to fly more air missions than it wanted, mostly because its allies kept running out of planes, pilots and munitions, but France kept its promises and flew the most combat sorties of any country. (Yes, France.) And there were no Western boots on the ground, unless you count the CIA officers who landed in Benghazi to figure out who the rebels were, and the French, British and Italian advisors who reportedly helped the guerrillas call in targets for NATO airstrikes. It took six months for the rebels to gather strength and take Tripoli, which was longer than NATO had hoped for, but it was a short war by historical standards.
Perhaps most important, the Libya campaign now looks like a success for one of the Obama administration's biggest foreign policy ideas: that an important goal of U.S. diplomacy, especially in a time of economic austerity, is to persuade others to help bear the burden of quelling the world's dangers.
This is as close to an Obama doctrine as exists, even though an incautious administration official nearly discredited the concept at the start of the Libya campaign by calling it "leading from behind."
The phrase is from Nelson Mandela, who often said he learned as a young goatherd that organizing a social movement means allowing others to take the lead. But the concept sounded wimpy to American ears after 70 years of defining ourselves as the leader of the free world. Besides, in the case of Libya, it wasn't entirely accurate. The United States wasn't exactly leading from behind; it was simply leading jointly with France, Britain and others.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton framed the action in those terms this month. "This is exactly the kind of world that I want to see," she said, "where it's not just the United States and everybody is standing on the sidelines while we bear the costs, while we bear the sacrifice."
When he faces the voters next year, Obama can make a credible argument that in foreign policy, he's done most of what he promised. He said he would wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. troops are slowly disengaging from both countries. He promised to maintain the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups; he's done that. And he promised to renew U.S. alliances so we could draw on more help from others; the NATO campaign in Libya, with much of the burden borne by Europeans, is proof that the doctrine can work. Obama's foreign policy has fallen short of its goals on other counts, most notably in Israel and Iran, but on balance, it's not a bad record.
Will that count for much in November 2012, when voters decide whether to give Obama another four years? Not a chance. Just ask George H.W. Bush.