Micah Zenko

The L Word

In Washington, "leadership" is the disease, not the cure.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over the past few months, the Beltway’s foreign policy community has offered two broad observations in op-eds and essays on America’s role in the world. The first — repeatedly covered in this column — is that the world is one of increasing complexity, instability, and general dystopia. In a twist to his repeated assertion that the world has never been more dangerous, on March 22, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that "the world is more dangerous, because more people can do us harm." (This implies the world can only become ever more perilous since global population is projected to grow by one billion people over the next dozen years; presumably the Pentagon’s Strategic Choices and Management Review will include expanding access to birth control as a key priority.)

The second observation is that we are now suffering a "world on fire" — as Senator Lindsey Graham described it in February — primarily because the United States has allowed it to deteriorate. More specifically, President Barack Obama, through his personal inclination or inattention, has let a "vacuum" emerge outside of America’s borders, which — like the earthly portal that brings forth the ancient Sumerian god of destruction, Gozer, at the end of Ghostbusters — has been filled with mayhem, evil, and darkness. As political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote two weeks ago: "A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states." 

The proposed solution for a world that has become more dangerous only because the American president allowed it? "Leadership" — the alleged absence of which is based on the observation of the anonymous Obama adviser who famously told The New Yorker that the administration’s approach to Libya was one of "leading from behind." Ever since, whenever a policymaker or pundit observes any foreign policy that they object to, they charge the White House with exercising insufficient leadership. The next time you read some pundit demanding more leadership abroad, there are several assumptions worth bearing in mind.

First, those who oppose current U.S. foreign policies are always the ones appealing for more leadership, though they rarely provide details about what should be done differently. There are no new strategic objectives, courses of action, or actionable policy recommendations that could plausibly achieve the desired outcome. Developing realistic policy alternatives is difficult and involves making judgments about what trade-offs to make and what risks to accept. But telling the president to simply "do more" is a lazy and completely safe charge, since it requires nothing from the accuser other than to repeatedly highlight that they haven’t gotten their way because of presidential inaction.

Second, leadership appeals also assume a wholly unrealistic presidential capability to compel U.S. allies and friends to adopt previously rejected policies. The world is, to quote the title of a recent Daniel Henninger op-ed, "Looking for Leadership" in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Cyprus — "All these matters have been treated so far with degrees of U.S. diffidence." The unstated belief here is that just a few more presidential phone calls or country visits would catalyze all the relevant stakeholders to selflessly and suddenly act in a coordinated manner to resolve persistent foreign policy challenges. Moreover, since these challenges have occurred only because of the willful neglect of the Oval Office, it is President Obama’s personal obligation to correct them.

Third, leadership appeals are often thinly veiled demands that the president authorize the use of military force. As Richard Cohen has argued in the Washington Post as to why the president should intervene in Syria’s civil war: "Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens. Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how." What the armed opposition in Syria, and allies who claim to support some sort of intervention, actually want is not Obama’s leadership, but the heavy weapons supplied by the CIA and the combat aircraft and cruise missiles that can only be delivered by the Pentagon. They want America’s unmatched capacity to destroy things and kill people to assure that Assad will fall. They don’t seek nor need America’s guidance to achieve it, just America’s might. Of course, opposition groups request U.S. military intervention all the time, but since those demands go largely unreported, pundits rarely cry "leadership" for those conflicts.

Fourth, there is an assumption that only the American president is obliged to show the leadership required to solve collective action problems unfolding thousands of miles away. As Jackson Diehl wrote on Monday, "Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership." No pundit ever demands that those neighboring and nearby states — possessing vast military arsenals that could easily topple Assad, at somewhat greater risk than a U.S.-led intervention — show their own leadership. They are unanimous in their call for someone else to intervene (meaning the United States) to end the civil war, and pundits are soon convinced that this is the responsibility of Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, those same pundits never request that emerging powers in New Delhi, Brasilia, or Pretoria do anything regarding some foreign conflict. In Washington, America is forever the indispensable and manipulable nation.

Finally, many demanding greater leadership from President Obama are conditioned to believe that "leadership" is always the answer. The field of "leadership studies" and its supposed lessons are constantly jammed down the throats of graduate students at public policy, business, and law schools. In my five years in various low-level research positions at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the message I saw constantly transmitted to students was that they were being formed into an elite cadre with the skills and temperament that would allow them to lead others to solve social and political problems wherever they emerged.

Retired politicians, generals, and business executives reinforce this perspective. They cannot simply write memoirs of their professional experiences; instead, they must instead spin vignettes into bite-size "leadership lessons" that are packaged into paid speaking gigs and books — type "leadership books" into the A
mazon search engine you get 86,451 results. These sell tremendously well since it is appealing to imagine that inside of us all is a mini-Churchill — currently constrained by bureaucratic forces or dismal personalities — just waiting for the opportunity to assume control of our own destiny and to compel others to follow. It is no wonder that "leadership" has become the end-all-be-all solution to foreign policy problems.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola