In recent days, President Barack Obama has been stressing that his national-security record will help him get reelected. In a January interview with Time magazine, in his State of the Union address, and elsewhere, he not only recalls, with justifiable pride, the killing of Osama bin Laden, but also claims credit for “restor[ing] American leadership in the world.”
In common parlance, leadership abroad means something along the lines of identifying the U.S. national interest and enlisting foreign partners to join us in achieving it. What Mr. Obama means, however, is more or less the opposite.
Before entering office in 2009, Mr. Obama and his administration’s top foreign-policy intellectuals wrote extensively in favor of a less assertive, less militarily capable, less independent United States. This prescription fit their characterization of America’s post–World War II history as a story of bullying, selfishness, militarism, and violations of the rights of others.
In a 2003 article in The New Republic, Harvard lecturer Samantha Power referred to American pride in our freedoms of speech, religion, voting, and assembly — then explained that “much anti-Americanism derives from the role U.S. political, economic, and military power has played in denying such freedoms to others.” She advocated “instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa” and drew a parallel between America’s actions and those of the Nazis: “When [German Chancellor] Willie Brandt went down on one knee in the Warsaw ghetto, his gesture was gratifying to World War II survivors, but it was also ennobling and cathartic for Germany. Would such an approach be futile for the United States?” Amazingly, the comment caused no flap in 2003 — or in 2009, when President Obama appointed Ms. Power to the National Security Council staff.
In the academic circles Mr. Obama inhabited before entering politics, historical, classic American leadership is criticized for being arrogant and overreaching. In a recent Woodrow Wilson Center essay, Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning from 2009 to 2011, summarized a progressive understanding of leadership as follows: “The U.S. should stop trying to dominate and direct global events. The best we can do is to build our capital so that we can influence events as they arise.”
President Obama often speaks of leadership, as all politicians do, but he inclines to the progressive foreign-policy school’s definition. For him, it involves embracing constraints and subordinating U.S. interests to the permission of multilateral bodies, as he did when he waited for the approval of the Arab League and United Nations before supporting the anti-Qaddafi rebellion in Libya.
Mr. Obama explained to Time that he favors “an American leadership that recognizes the rise of countries like China and India and Brazil. It’s a U.S. leadership that recognizes our limits in terms of resources, capacity.” Knowing one’s own limitations is good and can help advance one’s interests. But that’s different from shackling oneself or deciding to act only with lots of company. If leadership means joining the crowd, that’s an Orwellian inversion of vocabulary. When an anonymous administration official told The New Yorker last year that Mr. Obama aspired to “lead from behind,” he caused embarrassment by exposing the president’s sleight of tongue.