A sil­ver lin­ing to ‘lead­ing from be­hind’

Obama’s im­ma­ture lead­er­ship is forc­ing U.S. al­lies to grow up

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - By Daniel Pipes

That France’s so­cial­ist govern­ment of Fran­cois Hol­lande just blocked a bad deal with Tehran, emerg­ing as the hero of the Geneva ne­go­ti­a­tions, is on one level a huge sur­prise. It also fol­lows log­i­cally, though, from the pas­siv­ity of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy is in un­prece­dented free fall, with a feck­less and dis­tracted White House barely pay­ing at­ten­tion to the out­side world, and when it does, act­ing in an in­con­sis­tent, weak and fan­tas­ti­cal man­ner. If one were to dis­cern some­thing so grand as an Obama Doc­trine, it would read: “Snub friends, cod­dle op­po­nents, de­value Amer­i­can in­ter­ests, seek con­sen­sus and act un­pre­dictably.”

Along with many other crit­ics, I rue this state of af­fairs. Still, the French ac­tion demon­strates that it does have a sil­ver lin­ing.

From World War II un­til Pres­i­dent Obama waltzed in, the U.S. govern­ment had es­tab­lished a pat­tern of tak­ing the lead in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and then get­ting crit­i­cized for do­ing so. Three ex­am­ples: In Viet­nam, Amer­i­cans felt the need to per­suade their South Viet­namese ally to re­sist North Viet­nam and the Viet Cong. Dur­ing much of the Cold War, they pres­sured al­lies in the North At­lantic Treaty Or­ga­ni­za­tion (NATO) to re­sist Soviet pres­sure. Dur­ing the 1990s, they urged Mid­dle Eastern states to con­tain and pun­ish Iraqi dic­ta­tor Sad­dam Hus­sein.

In each case, Amer­i­cans rushed ahead on their own, then be­seeched al­lies to work to­gether against a com­mon en­emy, a com­pletely il­log­i­cal pat­tern. The nearby and weak Viet­namese, Euro­peans and Arabs should have feared Hanoi, Moscow and Bagh­dad more than the dis­tant and strong Amer­i­cans. The lo­cals should have been beg­ging the Yan­kees to pro­tect them. Why was this per­sis­tently not the case?

Be­cause the U.S. govern­ment, per­suaded of its su­pe­rior vi­sion and greater moral­ity, re­peated the same mis­take: See­ing al­lies as slow-mov­ing and con­fused hin­drances more than as full-fledged part­ners, it brushed them aside and as­sumed main re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. With rare ex­cep­tions (Is­rael, and France to a lesser ex­tent), the Amer­i­can adult un­think­ingly in­fan­tilized its smaller al­lies.

This had the un­to­ward con­se­quence of leav­ing those al­lies with an aware­ness of their own ir­rel­e­vance. Sens­ing that their ac­tions hardly mat­tered, they in­dulged in po­lit­i­cal im­ma­tu­rity. Not re­spon­si­ble for their own des­tinies, they felt free to en­gage in anti-Amer­i­can­ism as well as other dys­func­tional be­hav­iors, such as cor­rup­tion in Viet­nam, pas­siv­ity in NATO, and greed in the Mid­dle East. Mo­gens Glistrup, a Dan­ish politi­cian, em­bod­ied this prob­lem, propos­ing in 1972 that Danes save both taxes and lives by dis­band­ing their mil­i­tary and re­plac­ing it with an an­swer­ing ma­chine in the Min­istry of De­fense that would play a sin­gle mes­sage in Rus­sian: “We ca­pit­u­late.”

Mr. Obama’s ap­proach pulls the United States back from its cus­tom­ary adult role and has it join the chil­dren. Re­spond­ing to crises on a case-by-case ba­sis and pre­fer­ring to act in con­sul­ta­tion with other gov­ern­ments, he would rather “lead from be­hind” and be just one of the pack, as though he were prime min­is­ter of Bel­gium rather than pres­i­dent of the United States.

Iron­i­cally, this weak­ness has the salu­tary effect of slap­ping al­lies hard across the face and wak­ing them to the fact that Wash­ing­ton has too long cod­dled them. Jaun­diced al­lies such as Canada, Saudi Ara­bia and Ja­pan are wak­ing to the re­al­ity that they can­not take pot­shots at Un­cle Sam, as­sured in the knowl­edge that he will save them from them­selves. They now see that their ac­tions count, a sober­ing new ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, Turk­ish lead­ers are try­ing to light a fire un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to in­ter­vene in the Syr­ian civil war.

Thus does the pres­i­dent’s in­ep­ti­tude have the po­ten­tial to turn re­luc­tant, self-ab­sorbed part­ners into more se­ri­ous, ma­ture ac­tors. At the same time, his in­com­pe­tence prom­ises to change the U.S. rep­u­ta­tion from over­bear­ing nanny to much-ap­pre­ci­ated col­league, along the way re­duc­ing ire di­rected at Amer­i­cans.

Of course, a weak for­eign pol­icy presents the dan­ger of catas­tro­phe — such as fa­cil­i­tat­ing an Ira­nian nu­clear break­out or not de­ter­ring a Chi­nese act of ag­gres­sion that leads to war — so this sil­ver lin­ing is just that, a small rec­om­pense for a much larger gray cloud. It’s not some­thing to be pre­ferred. Still, should two con­di­tions be ful­filled — no dis­as­ter on Mr. Obama’s watch and a suc­ces­sor who re­asserts Amer­i­can strength and will — it just might be that Amer­i­cans and their al­lies look back on this pe­riod as a nec­es­sary one with a pos­i­tive legacy.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY LI­NAS GARSYS

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