Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the president’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.”
— Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, May 2 issue
To be precise, leading from behind is a style, not a doctrine. Doctrines involve ideas, but since there are no discernible ones that make sense of Obama’s foreign policy — Lizza’s painstaking two-year chronicle shows it to be as ad hoc, erratic, and confused as it appears — this will have to do.
And it surely is an accurate description, from President Obama’s shocking passivity during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution to his dithering on Libya — acting at the very last moment, then handing off to a bickering coalition, yielding the current bloody stalemate. It’s been a foreign policy of hesitation, delay, and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) “international community” to do what only America can.
But underlying that style, assures this Obama adviser, there really are ideas. Indeed, “two unspoken beliefs,” explains Lizza. “That the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”
Amazing. This is why Obama is deliberately diminishing American presence, standing, and leadership in the world?
Take proposition one: We must “lead from behind” because U.S. relative power is declining. Even if you accept the premise, it’s a complete non sequitur. What does China’s rising GDP have to do with American buck-passing on Libya, misjudging Iran, appeasing Syria?
True, China is rising. But first, it is the only power of any significance rising militarily relative to us. Russia is recovering from levels of military strength so low that it barely registers globally. And European power is in true decline (see their performance — except for the British — in Afghanistan and their current misadventures in Libya).
And second, the challenge of a rising Chinese military is still exclusively regional. It would affect a war over Taiwan. It has zero effect on anything significantly beyond China’s coast. China has no blue-water navy. It has no foreign bases. It cannot project power globally. It might in the future — but by what logic should that paralyze us today?
Proposition two: We must lead from behind because we are reviled. Pray tell, when were we not? During Vietnam? Or earlier, under Eisenhower? When his vice president was sent on a good-will trip to Latin America, he was spat upon and so threatened by the crowds that he had to cut short his trip. Or maybe later, under the blessed Reagan? The Reagan years were marked by vast demonstrations in the capitals of our closest allies denouncing America as a warmongering menace taking the world into nuclear winter.
“Obama came of age politically,” explains Lizza, “during the post–Cold War era, a time when America’s unmatched power created widespread resentment.” But the world did not begin with the coming to consciousness of Barack Obama. Cold War resentments ran just as deep.
It is the fate of any assertive superpower to be envied, denounced, and blamed for everything under the sun. Nothing has changed. Moreover, for a country so deeply reviled, why during the massive unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, and Syria have anti-American demonstrations been such a rarity?
Who truly reviles America the hegemon? The world that Obama lived in and that shaped him intellectually: the elite universities; his Hyde Park milieu (including his not-to-be-mentioned friends, William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn); the church he attended for two decades, ringing with sermons more virulently anti-American than anything heard in today’s full-throated uprising of the Arab Street.
It is the liberal elites who revile the American colossus and devoutly wish to see it cut down to size. Leading from behind — diminishing America’s global standing and assertiveness — is a reaction to their view of America, not the world’s.
Other presidents take anti-Americanism as a given, rather than evidence of American malignancy, believing — as do most Americans — in the rightness of our cause and the nobility of our intentions. Obama thinks anti-Americanism is a verdict on America’s fitness for leadership. I would suggest that “leading from behind” is a verdict on Obama’s fitness for leadership.
Leading from behind is not leading. It is abdicating. It is also an oxymoron. Yet a sympathetic journalist, channeling an Obama adviser, elevates it to a doctrine. The president is no doubt flattered. The rest of us are merely stunned.