Leading from behind

Leading from behind

Ryan Lizza has a lengthy and hilarious exposé in The New Yorker about foreign policy in the Obama administration.  It sets out to be a portrait of nobly serious people bringing American national security into line with our diminished influence, "remaking" American foreign policy. The administration clearly thought it was a good-news story, since Secretary Clinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon went on the record.

What makes the article so funny is the pompous self-regard of the administration officials and the complete lack of appreciation for how woefully inadequate their performance has been in meeting these challenges. They are "not cursed with self-awareness," to quote Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham. Secretary of State Clinton compares herself as a collegiate Vietnam war protester to the young Egyptians who brought down the Mubarak government. Both Tom Donilon and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes explain the importance of reducing involvement in the middle east because our strategic interests lie in Asia … as the administration engaged in combat operations in Libya. A presidential memo is cited as wisely anticipating the middle eastern revolutions, except that the memo calls for tailored country by country programs that the administration’s policies clearly did not have. The author even unwittingly adds to the humor, saying "Obama’s instinct was to try to have it both ways."

The richest portrait in this regard is unsigned: a senior official describes the president’s doctrine as "leading from behind." I am not making this up. 

Ask any young Marine what "leading from behind" means. They probably won’t know; they’ve only ever seen leaders out front, sharing in the greatest risks because that is the responsibility of command. To the extent they will even understand what you’re asking, those Marines will probably say that a leader in the back of the formation is a coward, because they are making their Marines take risks the commander will not expose himself to.

Which is pretty close to what President Obama has done in regard to the demands for democracy in the middle east. He allows others to take risks for which he then claims credit — as Secretary Clinton tried to do taking a "historic walk through Tahrir Square" in Cairo, except that her brethren in bringing down governments would not play along because they resented her trying to take credit for their revolution when we supported the Mubarak government even during their uprising. As the White House did when the U.N. resolution on Libya passed: the British and French governments did the hard work of preparation and consensus building, but the White House crowed about it’s "reset" policy delivering Russia.  Same story on the air war: The White House did the flashy work at the start, took credit, and handed the slogging work of achieving our president’s stated objective of regime change over to the NATO allies.  

Let us try for a moment to take the administration as seriously as they take themselves, though. In the article, Secretary Clinton described the administration’s policy as "wanting to help the international community accept responsibility." Their objective is sound: to reshape America’s foreign relations so that others bear more of the burden of achieving outcomes in our mutual interest. Vice President Biden is actually right that our allies underestimate their strength but want us to step in and make it easier because of our superior power.

But "leading from behind" doesn’t produce that outcome. It produces resentful allies who feel we set them up to fail, resentful rebels who feel we would not help them win, resentful victims who continued at great danger to resist despots. It produces governments that ponder whether another powerful state should be assisted because it might prove less aggravating than we are.

The way to achieve the different burdensharing arrangement the Obama administration is angling for is to set allies up to succeed, not question their will to achieve our mutual objectives while we sit safely on the sidelines.