In Box

In Defense of Leading from Behind

So what if it's a terrible slogan? It's still the right strategy.

Editor’s note: Leslie H. Gelb—an American journalist, diplomat, and a giant of the U.S. foreign policy community—died on Saturday, Aug. 31. He was 82. Over the years, he contributed a wide array of analysis and commentary to Foreign Policy. See below: his 2013 essay in defense of the idea that the United States should lead from behind. Click here to read several of his more recent pieces. Subscribers can view more of his work in the Foreign Policy archives.

“Leading from behind,” a quote from an unnamed Obama administration official highlighted by New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, has been vehemently and repeatedly trashed in the Washington scramble to redefine U.S. power in the 21st century, becoming fodder for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and a rallying cry for neoconservatives. But the concept behind the phrase deserves another look. President Barack Obama seems to have come to the same conclusion and already is leading in a new way — not from behind, but as a partner.

When it was coined in April 2011, the phrase rested on indisputable, if uncomfortable, emerging realities: Americans had soured on playing Lone Ranger to a hopelessly messy world. The price tag had grown outrageous, the results dubious. America’s allies were demanding a bigger say in the policy menu, though they still expected Washington to pick up the check. Forget not that they pushed the White House into dethroning Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and now scheme the same for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. And remember the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, where erstwhile friends ditched the United States to join China’s disgraceful bid to undermine global climate change efforts — though they didn’t fail to slip the bill (and the blame) under the U.S. door.

Due regard for these potent realities, however, was doomed by the word “behind.” The idea was ill-named and ill-explained, and the foreign-policy gods descended with lethal fury. They likened the phrase to a military officer commanding his troops to charge while he sipped tea at headquarters. “Behind,” they intoned, reeked of weakness and indecision, of fear to wield American power in a world still quietly craving U.S. leadership. Unsurprisingly, the slogan’s originator remains anonymous, surely trembling that Bob Woodward might soon unmask him or her.

Here are the useful insights hidden within “leading from behind,” and here’s how they can be put together to fashion a new strategy for using international power in the 21st century. First, the “behind” must be banished. If foreign-policy hands the world over agree on anything, it is that only Washington can lead on major international issues for some time to come. Americans shouldn’t shrink from this; it’s still the best way to protect U.S. interests. If Washington is to lead effectively, however, it must do so in a new way — through genuine partnerships. Unless others are treated as actual partners, they won’t follow, and any resulting coalition will lack the power to prevail. From time to time, Obama has suggested that this is indeed his approach to foreign policy, but as in so many matters he has never proved the point.

These future partnerships must be grounded in the idea of mutual indispensability, wherein the United States is the indispensable leader and other countries are the indispensable partners. This is not the Lone Ranger and Tonto, nor many Tontos without the Lone Ranger. Rather, as Washington takes the lead on important matters, other countries will buy in because their interests are served. It works because all parties understand that a coalition provides the best opportunity to achieve common goals — that mutual indispensability is a power multiplier. It doesn’t take a Bismarck to see that most international problems can’t be solved without such power partnerships.

States will not greet this process with oaths of obedience or lust to be yoked into partnerships. Their natural tendency is to let the forest burn in hopes that someone else will extinguish the flames. Such inertial heft is not easily overcome. Nor are the vagaries of domestic politics when short-term political costs loom large. Rarely will the logic of mutual indispensability alone galvanize a coalition. Arm-twisting by Washington might help, as might giving or withholding special favors. But those sorts of measures are usually more effective at closing deals than forging them in the first place.

The instrument best suited for forging coalitions is a fine and compelling strategy. The strategy must demonstrate that only partnership can fix the problem, that only common action will prevent worsening at the expense of would-be partners, that U.S. leadership is fair and necessary, and that, ultimately, partnering amounts to good politics at acceptable costs. Good strategy is the essential ingredient of durable coalitions. Good strategy is power.

THE BEST CASE for a strategy of U.S.-led partnerships, ironically, was made when it wasn’t done this way — the overthrow of Qaddafi. Here, Washington actually led from behind. France and Britain, in particular, beat their drums daily against the tyrant, whose ouster represented a humanitarian duty. Predictably, the Obama administration succumbed to the pressure, though with conditions: European allies and Arab aircraft would attack Qaddafi’s forces and supply the arms to the noble rebels, while the United States would provide logistical support, command and control for air attacks, and intelligence — but not engage in actual combat on the ground.

This coalition began firing away without carefully examining the credentials of the supposed good guys or probing whether they could retain power and serve Western interests better than the colonel. Little apparent thought was devoted to a post-Qaddafi Libya — perhaps the allies believed that the country’s vast oil wealth would solve all problems. Their “strategy” also failed to address the repercussions for the rest of the region. How did they imagine their “freedom fighters” would dispose of Qaddafi’s vast store of advanced armaments? Well, you can’t think of everything. Absent Washington’s coherent lead on these strategic questions, the inevitable result was chaos, attacks, and new threats from al Qaeda cohorts. Believe it or not, the perpetrators of this “strategy” still congratulate themselves for this fiasco — even after the debacles in Benghazi and Mali.

But the wrong strategy on Libya points to the right one for Syria. The key is identifying the most serious potential threats to the interests of America and its allies amid the welter of possible outcomes. Just as the most serious threat in Libya was not Qaddafi’s continued reign but what would come next, Assad — bad as he is — isn’t the worst nightmare in Syria. He was always worrisome to his neighbors, but not a major danger. To be sure, America’s strategy must include his departure, but at this point, that event alone won’t stop the fighting. His fellow Alawites will not lay down their arms as long as they fear the Sunni rebels’ revenge. Moreover, though Assad’s flight will diminish Iran’s influence in the region, his departure won’t begin to eliminate it.

Just as the biggest threat in Libya was a radical jihadi takeover, so it is in Syria. As matters now stand, there is a high risk that a rebel victory would mean a jihadi victory. So far at least, the mujahideen have been both the fiercest fighters and the most effective administrators of conquered territory. Extremists aren’t the only ones who know how to bake bread and pave roads, but they’re the ones who have been doing it best.

Thus, the imperative is a strategic partnership to stop the jihadists — the one common interest among Alawites and moderate Sunnis. A jihadi triumph is what both fear most, the moderate Sunnis because the jihadists would overpower and enslave them, and the Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, because they see their slaughter in jihadi eyes. The outlines of a deal take form: The moderate Sunni rebels pl
edge a government role and means of protection for the Alawites, and the Alawites dump Assad and cede necessary powers to the moderates, all based on mutual containment of jihadists. This approach also would lock in the crucial partnership of the Russians, who won’t abandon the Alawites. Britain, France, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Persian Gulf states — even possibly Iran — should also find it appealing. That’s a compelling power partnership, and the only chance to end this civil war without a lot more war.

A workable strategy for Afghanistan, too, sits on America’s doorstep and must focus on which countries would suffer most from a failed state there. The name of the game for Washington is to disentangle itself as fast as possible without abandoning Afghans and further besmirching American credibility. The strategic key is finding partners with potent reasons to assume responsibilities in Afghanistan as America draws down.

The answer stares Washington in the face and always has: Afghanistan’s neighbors. The prospect of a collapsing Afghanistan — spilling over with refugees, drugs, and religious extremists — should give nightmares to Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China, India, Pakistan, and even Iran (which helped early in the war for these reasons). But as long as the United States protects their interests, they have no incentive to partner. Now Washington must alert them that they can either take responsibility or suffer the consequences (though, of course, the United States will and should play a continuing role in organizing the process and helping to pay the bill).

Going forward, the United States has no choice but to embrace the sound underpinnings of “leading from behind.” The blunt truth is that Americans won’t finance Lone Rangerism, and it wouldn’t work anyway. Other countries won’t just follow along with Washington. Sure, making this new approach viable will be burdensome and cumbersome. But if key countries don’t want to see problems fester and explode, they will recognize that mutual indispensability — with America as the leading power partner and themselves as actual partners — is the only promising path to successful use of international power. That’s the ultimate message of “leading from behind,” and the foreign-policy gods trash it at their own peril.

Leslie H. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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