Published September 06, 2011
People have struggled to figure out if there is a theme to Obama's foreign policy, which so far is marked mostly by its inconsistency: Obama was against the Iraq surge, but in favor of the Afghan surge. He encouraged rebels in Libya and Egypt, but not in Iran. He criticized China over human rights but expects them to continue lending us money and buying our debt.
The one unifying theme of the Obama administration's foreign policy, is we're not George W Bush. But the sell by date on that one is past due.
But with Libya they've hit upon an Obama Doctrine -- it's called "Leading from Behind." From the president's perspective "leading from behind" is being part of a coalition, but not leading that coalition, but using our influence to guide the coalition. The team in the White House obviously think it makes sense politically to lead from behind. After all, if it succeeds, they can claim victory; if it fails, they won't take the blame. They think it's suited to America's new place in the world, as a declining superpower.
For critics the Obama Doctrine is one of limited war: limited participation, limited means, limited time and with the inevitable limited success. And some critics point out that in military slang, leading from behind is a damning criticism -- someone who leads from behind is a coward.
Whether you're an Obama cheerleader or critic, the Leading from Behind Doctrine rests on two unstated assumptions: First, that America as a declining superpower is no longer capable of leading -- the best we can do is be an important voice in a coalition. And second, that American leadership has not always been a force for good, especially under President George W. Bush. The problem is, while these assumptions may be widely acknowledged within the Obama White House, they do not sit well with the America people.
But there are even bigger problems with the Obama Doctrine. First, Leading from Behind doesn't work for long -- pretty soon the countries in front stop looking back over their shoulders for guidance and start looking ahead and lead on their own, dragging us along with them. And second, when things go awry, as they always do in war and politics, it's difficult to right the ship of state if you're leading from behind. Sounds like the Obama administration hasn't thought this one through, doesn't it?
But perhaps the biggest problem of all with the Obama Doctrine is that if America is no longer the major world leader, and no longer sets the rules of international order, then who does? China? the Middle East? The strongest country in every region? Or are we entering a period where there are no rules?
Again, the Obama administration hasn't thought this one through.
The truth is that the world will NOT be a better place with China rules in place, or no rules. The world would then look back longingly on American leadership, which while imperfect was far better than what replaced it. Most of the world looks to America to lead, not recklessly, but as a benevolent power, with the good of others in mind.
Right now, the Obama administration is bragging about its success in Libya as vindication of leading from behind. But this war is far from over. Gen. Muammar Qaddafi may no longer hold the reins of government in Libya but he has yet to be captured. The rebels have yet to govern, and it's not clear they will do so effectively, or without falling prey to Islamists within their forces. And it's not clear whether anyone -- the rebels, the Qaddafi loyalists, or the NATO special forces on the ground -- are rounding up Qaddafi's considerable stockpile of WMD to keep them out of hands of looters and the international black market where terrorists shop for weapons.