The Magazine

How About Leading from the Front?

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By LEE SMITH
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According to recent news reports, the Romney foreign policy team is trying to figure out what the presumptive Republican candidate thinks America’s role in the world should be. He’s been clear regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, promising that if he’s elected, Iran won’t get the bomb. But what about Afghanistan, say, or China? With less than six months left till Election Day, is he going to articulate distinctive foreign policy positions, or will he let Obama dictate the terms of the debate?

Image of a Middle Eastern man with a sign that says "Freedom"

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It would be understandable, given Romney’s desire to keep focused on jobs and the economy, if he were reluctant to get too far into the weeds on foreign policy. But come November, the American people will not be electing a financial adviser. They’ll be electing the leader of a world power.

Romney should not actually have much trouble outflanking Obama on foreign policy. The White House prides itself, rightly, on killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other jihadists who threatened U.S. citizens, interests, and allies. But the national security strategy of a superpower with interests across the world cannot be reduced to counterterrorism. Nor can our global responsibilities be fulfilled, in the immortal phrase, by “leading from behind.”

The lie was given to this bizarre conceit as early as the Libya intervention. Where Obama’s advisers boasted that leading from behind represented a new kind of leadership, scaled to the modest expectations of a post-financial crisis world, the reality was that while France and the United Kingdom were out front, it was American firepower that brought down Qaddafi. When Obama disdains to lead elsewhere, someone else fills the vacuum—often at the expense of American interests and values.

Consider Syria, where the Obama administration has handed its policy off to the Russians, by way of former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan. It took Obama five months into the uprising and thousands of casualties before he called for Assad to step down. But because the administration does not believe that the Free Syrian Army is capable of toppling Assad—a prophecy that without American arms and training might be self-fulfilling—it has opted to work with the “international community” for what it calls a political solution, in the hope that Moscow will force Assad from power, leading to a democratic transition.

The White House is not able to describe the mechanism by which such an outcome might be engineered, and that is because Moscow doesn’t particularly want to topple Assad. Some of the reasons Russian diplomats have put forth for preserving Assad are nearly comical—for instance, a Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus would embolden Chechen -rebels. But what matters to Russia is that it has become the de facto power on the ground because the White House has let it. Any regional actor that wants some movement on Syria, whether it’s the Saudis, Qataris, or Turks, has to go to the Russians. Moscow has no intention of abandoning the role that Obama handed it. Not since the Cold War have the Russians enjoyed such diplomatic prestige—and all thanks to Obama’s foreign policy weakness.

So long as Moscow gets to play powerbroker, the Russians don’t care how many Syrians the Assad regime slaughters. The question Romney needs to be asking is shouldn’t this matter to the president of the United States? If Obama is moved to pity or anger by all those corpses piling up in the streets of Syrian cities, then why is the White House deferring to the Annan process—as if U.N. monitors are capable of enforcing a ceasefire? Why won’t the White House do more than promise “nonlethal” aid to a civilian population suffering the depredations of Assad loyalists?

Middle East expert Fouad Ajami calls Syria Obama’s Rwanda, referring to the (much larger) 1994 slaughter that happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. It is that, but it’s something else, too. What we’ve been witnessing for more than 15 months in Syria is a profound historical event, one finally defined not by regime violence but by the risks the opposition has taken to rid the country of a dictator. Men, women, and children have been taking their lives in their hands to challenge a tyrant and his murderers, and have paid dearly—with more than 10,000 dead at this point. How, Romney should be asking, can an American president not be moved to action?

Other Republicans have challenged the White House’s stance on Syria, like Sen. John McCain, who called for military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and foreign airpower. And recently the last Republican president provided a larger context for the Syrian uprising: “America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere,” wrote George W. Bush. “It only gets to choose what side it is on.”

Romney should be making clear which side, as president, he’d be on in Syria.

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