Forget "leading from behind." Obama's Middle East strategy is closer to "pleading from behind."
Leslie Gelb is certainly right that the Obama administration’s strategy of “leading from behind” was “ill-named and ill-explained” (“The Right Play,” May/June 2013). But it was hardly a botched product launch. Rather, it was a game attempt to explain away a demonstrable failure of leadership as Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s troops closed in on the Benghazi rebels in March 2011. For more than a month after peaceful demonstrations had begun in Tripoli, the U.S. president dithered. When Libya’s rebels, who had been on the offensive at the outset, found themselves cornered and about to be overrun, an unnamed White House official used the phrase “leading from behind” to explain what was a belated decision to support and enable a British- and French-led intervention.
Gelb rightly calls this misguided Libya “strategy” a “fiasco,” which he is eager to distinguish from what he thinks is the “right” strategy for Syria. He brushes aside, however, the striking similarities between the administration’s approach to Libya and its “strategy” for Syria — both of which are appropriately described as “leading from behind” and both of which are dangerously flawed.
In the Libyan case, the United States waited long enough to diminish greatly its influence on the outcome but not long enough to avoid getting drawn into a conflict the administration had hoped to avoid altogether. Now we face a tumultuous Libya where it is unlikely that forces friendly to the United States will emerge as leaders — and Americans are dead at the hands of those the United States empowered as it led from behind.
The Syrian case is even worse. Here the dithering continues after more than two years of unabated chaos. During this time, the vacuum the United States chose to observe has been filled — as vacuums tend to be — with the very jihadists Gelb thinks his “strategy” should stop. Two years ago, America could have exerted serious influence on the opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, choosing whom to assist and whom to sideline. When Assad’s opponents needed help, Barack Obama’s administration stayed out of the game, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others took the lead in shaping the opposition that is now emerging. And though no one can be certain that an opposition supporting America’s values and interests would have resulted from early U.S. support, we can be sure that an opposition shaped by Wahhabi zealots from Saudi Arabia won’t.
If “leading from behind” describes the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria and Libya, “pleading from behind” best sums up the White House’s policy toward Iran, which may be far more consequential. Through its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, Iran has over several decades inflicted great damage on the United States, all while relentlessly advancing toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of all the policies the Obama administration has gotten or will get wrong, this is the most important. And like the others, it continues to be marked by interminable dithering to be followed almost certainly by the too little too late that the United States has trained its allies and adversaries to expect.
Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Leslie Gelb replies:
It’s always a pleasure to contend with Richard Perle because of his genius in making admittedly bad situations worse. When his policy proposals are clear, they invariably point to threats of force and use of force. More typically, however, he uses insinuation to suggest some magical solution or weakness in his targets.
Take Libya, where he blames U.S. President Barack Obama for doing too little too late and for not following through after Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall. Is Perle’s point that the United States should have taken military action unilaterally, thus preempting and excusing military responsibilities by Arab friends and European allies? On the contrary, Obama’s “leading from behind” caused others to assume responsibilities they otherwise would have dodged. As for Perle’s jab at the president for lack of follow-through, what would Perle have done? Perhaps dispatched ground troops to “pacify” the country? But he offers us only insinuation and silence.
When it comes to Syria, it is by no means clear, as Perle suggests, that America’s ability to distinguish good from bad rebels would have been any easier two years ago than today. And what if the United States had armed them earlier and that failed? Would Perle want U.S. air attacks? And if that failed, U.S. boots on the ground? Only silence and insinuation again.
Regarding Iran, Perle blames Obama for allowing the mullahs to virtually dominate the region. He seems to forget that the Iraq war he championed destroyed the only counterbalance to Iran in the region, leaving Tehran in a dominant position in the Middle East. Although Perle’s letter is silent on what to do now regarding Iran, we know what he wants — a massive U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear complex. And then what, Richard?