Monday, April 25, 2011

"Leading From Behind"

I've noted, in connection with Obama’s speech to the nation on Libya, that he embraces a strange-sounding notion of “passive leadership.” Ryan Lizza’s terrific piece in today’s New Yorker about the administration's internal division and vacillations respecting the Arab Spring concludes by quoting an Obama adviser proudly giving the same phenomenon a better name (my emphasis):
“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.’
Let me see if I have this straight. For people with a “John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world, “leading from behind” might sound like an Orwellian contradiction in terms. But people with a more nuanced grasp of foreign affairs will appreciate that expression for the illuminating oxymoron it is.  "Leading from behind" only sounds strange because it conveys a novel insight that was lost on the prior administration and an American public misled by its rhetoric about the War on Terror, viz., that, in today’s world, American ideological assertiveness is likely to be self-defeating.

I’ll leave it you to decide how sophisticated an insight that is. But as to its novelty, I dimly recall hearing something along those lines before:

The only difference I can see is that the pre-9/11 Bush, lacking the Obamaites' flair for self-dramatization, never thought to call it "world leadership."

1 comment:

Popinjay said...

It will be interesting to see if in the 2012 run for relection, Obama expands on this notion - or is forced to defend it -- in a debate with whoever the Republican rival is. I wish him luck explaining how 'leading from behind' is working out for us.