Shadow Government

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What would leading from behind look like in Syria?

The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind." At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the ...

D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages
D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages

The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."

At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.

There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.

The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."

At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.

There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events — what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era — the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.

This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak’s early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.

A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.

The international community is now more than a few steps behind events — leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.

President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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