The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has a lengthy piece out today exploring “how the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy.” The article outlines the President’s big foreign policy decisions throughout his young presidency — from the surge in Afghanistan and keeping a low profile during the Green Movement in Iran to participating in the UN mandated intervention in Libya — and ultimately ends with an interesting quote from one of Obama’s advisers:
Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: 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. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”
Predictably, the war hawks on the right picked up on this adviser’s “leading from behind” quote, and extrapolated something nefarious. War charging outfit Keep America Safe tweeted the quote and highlighted it on its website in mockery and AEI’s Danielle Pletka called it the article’s “best line.” And at Commentary, John Podhoretz claimed it damages Obama’s “chances for reelection” because it will be “thrown in his face.”
Why is the right all up in arms about this line? It’s unclear because they don’t say. Podhoretz never really says why this is bad, seemingly for him and the rest of his colleagues, perhaps it just sounds like subordination. But one of history’s most significant and important leaders thinks the idea is a good one, Nelson Mandela:
“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
Mandela biographer and Time Magazine’s Richard Stengel quoted Mandela expounding on this view:
“He said, ‘It’s interesting because there are lessons for leadership because the way you herd cattle is you lead them from behind. You find the most able and smartest cattle and have them lead the way. You empower them.’ He said that’s a good lesson for all of us. You basically have to kind of share the wealth. You have to find people who can execute your vision and ideas. I think that’s relevant not only in politics, but again even within families.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who is also quoted in the Lizza article — appeared to confirm this sentiment in Obama’s decision making on Libya. “[F]or those who want to see the United States always acting unilaterally, it’s not satisfying,” she said, “for the world we’re trying to build, where we have a lot of responsible actors who are willing to step up and lead, it is exactly what we should be doing.”
Clinton is probably right. For those like Pletka, Podhoretz and the other neocons at Keep America Safe, acting with the international community, instead of acting unilaterally against or without it, is not particularly satisfying. But as the Libyan case illustrates, the United States can still lead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its allies can’t stand ahead of the pack.
Cross-posted at the Wonk Room.