Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Obama on Leadership

A lot of people turned on their TVs to watch Obama's Libya speech last night hoping to be presented with the “Obama Doctrine.” When it comes to foreign policy, we expect our presidents to enunciate concise practical maxims that justify their past actions in terms that enable us to predict their future actions. That’s an understandable expectation because it answers to a civic need. In our capacity as democratic citizens at liberty to change our minds about whether a president is worthy of our support, we have to decide whether we’re likely to approve what he’ll do largely on the basis of his explanations of what he has done.

Yet Obama did his level best not to reveal anything that could be mistaken for a foreign policy doctrine. Consider his summary explanation of why he decided to intervene militarily in Libya (my emphasis):
“It’s true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs. And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right. In this particular country --Libya-- at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries, and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qaddafi’s forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground.”
That cost/benefit analysis is a perfectly intelligible explanation of Obama’s decision respecting Libya, but it’s exclusively backward-looking. It doesn’t tell us much of anything about how Obama will conduct foreign policy inasmuch as the peculiar combination of operative considerations arising in connection with “this particular country . . . at this particular moment” is unlikely ever to arise again. I don’t think that Obama’s practical inscrutability is a matter of negligence or obscurantism on his part. If you take him at his word, not revealing his priorities is an integral feature of his conception of leadership (my emphasis):
“American leadership is not simply a matter of going it alone and bearing all of the burden ourselves. Real leadership creates the conditions and coalitions for others to step up as well; to work with allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs; and to see that the principles of justice and human dignity are upheld by all.”
It comes naturally to most of us to think of leadership as a matter of active self-assertion. We’re looking for an Obama foreign policy doctrine because we've gotten in the habit of expecting a president to lead the "free world."   And to most of us, that means sending out unequivocal signals to our allies and enemies about what we want them to do and being visibly ready to reward or punish them according to their readiness to heed our wishes. Obama’s telling us that we’ve gotten things backwards; real leadership consists in the leader's readiness to subordinate his own preferences to the exigencies of promoting consensus among the people he’s leading.  By Obama's lights, presidential leadership is a matter of holding your cards close to your vest until everyone else's are on the table.

Taking Obama at his word in this respect explains a lot. It explains why just days before he decided to seek UN authorization for setting up a no-fly zone over Libya his priorities were hidden behind a barrage of mixed signals—Obama was saying that Gaddafi must go while his Defense Secretary was insinuating that a no-fly zone was too burdensome to pull off and his Secretary of State was cautioning us not to get behind the rebels until we know who they are and what they want. Obama only acquired humanitarian religion after the French, the British and the Arab League made their preferences for action known.

Come to think of it, Obama’s belief in passive leadership explains a lot about his domestic policy-making as well. When both houses of congress were controlled by his own party, he didn’t tell congressional leaders what they should spend scarce stimulus dollars on or how he wanted health care reform to work. He got on board both the Recovery Act and the Affordable Care Act after a consensus has already emerged behind each bill in congress.

What liberals (with respect to ObamaCare) and neo-cons (with respect to Libya) called “dithering,” Obama calls “leadership.”


Anonymous said...

Obama Doctrine = Obscurantism

I didn't know this until I looked it up in the dictionary:

Obscurantism is the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or the full details of some matter from becoming known. There are two, common, historical and intellectual, denotations: 1) restricting knowledge—opposition to the spread of knowledge, a policy of withholding knowledge from the public, and, 2) deliberate obscurity—an abstruse style (as in literature and art) characterized by deliberate vagueness.

Popinjay said...

Ron - I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the words "passive leadership" in your post. What the hell is that? Since I respect your opinions, I googled it to see if it was an actual "thing" that I missed out on after years in business school. It's an actual "thing" all right. It is a method of training horses, NOT RUNNING A COUNTRY.

Jake said...

Obama's view of leadership doesn't leave much room for accountability.