The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone wrote yesterday about one of the more infamous anonymous quotes of the Obama administration, which came in the last paragraph of Ryan Lizza’s 9,000 plus word New Yorker takeout on President Obama’s foreign policy approach in the face of the Arab Spring. “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind,'” reported Lizza last Spring.
Calderone’s piece is subtitled “Evolution of Blind Quote,” and indeed, it does cover how a phrase that was meant to positively describe cleverly empowering “other actors to do your bidding,” as Lizza later put it, metastasized almost immediately into conservative shorthand for Obama’s supposed weakness. Now, with the Libyan rebels taking Tripoli, that conservative line of attack is looking weak itself.
But I think there is more to the story of the phrase and the concept behind it than Calderone gets at.
Over the summer, I did some research assistance for someone looking at the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision-making. In particular, I put together a time line of the response to Libya. One thing I found was that the concept “leading from behind,” if not the exact wording of it, was publicly embraced by the White House over a month before Lizza’s article was first published online on April 24.
On March 10, the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson paraphrased Obama advisers saying that the president was “content to let other nations publicly lead the search for solutions to the Libyan conflict”:
Obama’s advisers say his low public profile masks the administration’s active private diplomacy, which has helped produce strong financial sanctions against Gaddafi’s inner circle, and the central U.S. role in military planning underway at NATO, whose defense ministers meet Thursday to consider next steps.
“This is the Obama conception of the U.S. role in the world – to work through multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships to make sure that the steps we are taking are amplified,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “Maybe this is a different conception of U.S. leadership. But we believe leadership should galvanize an international response, not rely on a unilateral U.S. response.”
Despite this early public embrace of the concept, top-ranking administration officials weren’t always willing to defend the stance. In an interview on Fox News Sunday after the Lizza article was published, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon distanced the administration from the phrase by suggesting it came from someone who wasn’t close to Obama:
WALLACE: Question: Can you honestly say that the idea of leading from behind is working in Libya?
DONILON: I have absolutely no idea who that advisor was. That advisor has not been in any meetings with the president on foreign policy that I know of, that would have been reflected, and I think I’m in all the president’s meetings on foreign policy, point one.
Point two, on Libya, we acted militarily in an emergency humanitarian situation to protect thousands of civilians in a town called Benghazi, and we have succeeded in doing that. And we have established in that case, after our lead, putting the coalition together, including Arab partners, we have provided now a base of support, and they are doing the ongoing operation. It’s a perfectly good division of labor.
In another interview on Fox News Sunday — that program is/was obsessed with the phrase, with it coming up in 10 separate segments since April 24 — Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended “leading from behind”:
WALLACE: You said that getting involved in Libya in the first place was the only major disagreement that you have had with this president. Do you agree with the current strategy of letting NATO take the lead of as it’s being called the strategy of leading from behind? Is that a strategy for success?
GATES: I think it’s absolutely the right strategy. When this operation started, the president, we were at war in Iraq, still. We had 50,000 troops in Iraq. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. We had 24,000 people engaged in Japanese earthquake relief. We have a number of commitments around the world.
And so, the arrangement and the understanding the president had with our key allies from the very beginning was the U.S. would come in heavy at beginning, establish a no-fly zone and then hand off the operation to our allies and that we would recede into a support role. That was his decision going in and he stuck to it
With the intervention in Libya now being viewed as a success for the Obama administration — don’t get me started on assessing foreign and other policies through the prism of wins and losses for politicians — the White House appears comfortable in its articulation of its policy approach, even if it is “the strategy-that-dare-not-speak-its-name but certainly can’t be called ‘leading from behind.'”
As for the phrase itself, it was always in my mind a willful misinterpretation to cast “leading from behind” as simply following. “Leading” leads the sentence, damn it! But I agree with The New Yorker’s David Remnick that “leading from behind the scenes” would have been a clearer articulation of the approach. Remnick is also correct, in my opinion, in his diagnosis of what the conservative reaction to the phrase says about their own foreign policy thinking:
The trouble with so much of the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy is that it cares less about outcomes than about the assertion of America’s power and the affirmation of its glory. In the case of Libya, Obama led from a place of no glory, and, in the eyes of his critics, no results could ever vindicate such a strategy. Yet a calculated modesty can augment a nation’s true influence. Obama would not be the first statesman to realize that it can be easier to win if you don’t need to trumpet your victory.
A great example of this was provided in a conversation between Karl Rove and Bill O’Reilly on March 15, 2011. “Barack Obama is quite clear about it — he doesn’t want to lead on Libya,” said O’Reilly. Rove said it was a “big mistake.” “Why do you think President Obama is hesitant to lead? Why — why doesn’t he want the United States to be in the forefront?” asked O’Reilly. “I think he wants multi — he wants to work through multilateral institutions,” replied Rove. They then both agreed that “never works.” (Except sometimes, like in Libya, it does).
Rove then suggested why Obama wanted to work through multilateral institutions. “He views the United States as a pleasant little country somewhere between you know, Finland and Honduras and Croatia and Malaysia.” Challenged by O’Reilly on this point, Rove replied:
ROVE: I think he sees us as a nice little country on the international stage that’s going to be bound up by multilateral commitments and multilateral leadership. And that the United States makes a mistake when it tries to lead — it ought, it ought to make its views known and hope that the world community comes together somehow magically and mysteriously to do the right thing.
And if not doing it in Libya and it’s because we are lacking American leadership. If America goes to sleep, the world goes to sleep as well.
Beyond a desire for America to only pursue policies that affirm its glory there is also a deep disrespect for the rest of the world in this worldview.