The Libyan revolution needn’t end in civil war. But there is no guarantee that it won’t. Either way, our ability to influence the course of events is limited. We can aid the rebels, as we have been doing all along: In fact, the Libyan opposition has quietly received not only NATO air support but also French and British military training, as well as weapons and advice from elsewhere in Europe and the Persian Gulf, most notably Qatar. But we can’t fight their war for them, we can’t unify them by force, and we can’t write their new constitution. On the contrary, if we make ourselves too visible in Libya, with troops on the ground or too many advisers in dark glasses, we will instantly become another enemy. If we try to create their government for them, we risk immediately making it unpopular.
What we should do instead — to use a much-mocked phrase — is bravely, proudly and forthrightly lead from behind. When the NATO engagement started, I argued that Obama’s best weapon was silence: no false promises, no soaring rhetoric, no threats. Keep this their war, not ours. The result: The rebels who just marched into Tripoli and waved at Al-Jazeera’s cameras looked like a Libyan force, not a Western one — because they were. The images of them stomping on Gaddafi’s photograph looked a lot more authentic, and will play better in Libya and across the Arab world, than did the images of Marines pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, an American flag draped over his head.
There was a price to pay for our silence. The absence of visible American leadership — indeed, the absence of any Western leadership — might have worked brilliantly for the Libyans, but it has been a disaster for the NATO alliance. It was no accident that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates lashed out at NATO’s European members in June, at the height of this conflict: After only a month of forays, the alliance’s weaknesses had been on full display. European troops that joined the conflict ran out of arms and ammunition; most members that stayed out didn’t have arms and ammunition to lend them. The two most prominent interventionists, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron, hardly spoke about Libya. There was no public support in the West for intervention because it had so few public advocates in the West. That’s not a good sign for the future. But then, that’s our problem, not Libya’s.
Fortunately for us, leading from behind in Libya is not merely the only option, it’s also the best option. This was their revolution, not ours. Now it is poised to become their transition, not ours. We can help and advise. We can point to the experience of others — in Iraq, Chile, Poland — who have also attempted the transition from dictatorship to democracy and who can offer lessons in what to do and what to avoid. We can keep expectations low and promises minimal. After all, we have a lot to learn about the Libyan rebels, their tribal divisions, their politics and their economics. And we have a lot of ammunition to replace back home.