James Rubin makes a very far-fetched claim in his review of Brzezinski’s Strategic Vision:
Brzezinski’s position is revealing, because it is hard to imagine a more clear-cut case for American military action than Libya. Although the United States may have had some marginal influence over the Egyptian military during the Tahrir Square revolution, and we may have been able to support rhetorically the successful upheaval in Tunisia, it was only in Libya that American action could be—and was—decisive. If, instead of supporting the British and French in their determination to use air power in support of the Libyan rebellion, the United States had decided to assume leadership, it is unlikely that there would be as much talk now about the decline in American power and influence [bold mine-DL].
There was already quite a lot of talk about decline before the Libyan conflict began. So-called “declinist” arguments were citing the effects of decade-long land wars and the financial crisis on the United States years before that unfortunate line was ever uttered to Ryan Lizza. Observers would most likely have been correctly describing the reality of relative U.S. decline and the gradual emergence of a more multipolar world just as often had the U.S. chosen to take an even more active role in the Libyan war.
The only reason that the “leading from behind” phrase has caught on as a description of American “decline” is that hegemonists keep mentioning it as a supposed failure of U.S. “leadership.” The U.S. wasn’t as assertive in its role in the Libyan war as it could have been for several well-known reasons. The most important of these was that the Pentagon originally wanted nothing to do with the conflict. Far from being a “clear-cut case for American military action,” it was a good example of a conflict in which the U.S. had nothing at stake and no compelling reason to intervene. Had the U.S. “assumed leadership” in Libya, the war might or might not have ended sooner, but it wouldn’t have reduced talk of U.S. decline, which has far more to do with U.S. fiscal and economic problems than it does with the ability of the military to wage war against weak Arab dictatorships. When hegemonists make arguments like the one Rubin makes here, it reinforces the impression that their ideas of “leadership” and “decline” are defined by the rate at which the U.S. is able to overthrow foreign governments.
Rubin insists that the U.S. would have significantly more leverage in Libya and be in a position to “minimize the chaos” there if it had only being leading from the front instead of from “behind.” This is nonsense. The French and British did lead the Libyan intervention, and they do not have all that much leverage over the new Libyan government, nor are they able to “minimize the chaos” any better than the U.S. is. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in trying. Greater American enthusiasm for and involvement in the Libyan war would have changed little or nothing in the conditions of post-war Libya. The “chaos” in Libya is partly the product of the military intervention itself, but most of it is the result of the collapse of a regime that had deliberately prevented the development of political institutions. The U.S. and its allies are responsible for the consequences of the Libyan intervention, but there’s no truth to the idea that more assertive U.S. “leadership” would have allowed the U.S. to limit the war’s negative effects.