The Magazine

A Leader from Behind

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Nonetheless, 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.”

—Ryan Lizza, The New Yorker, May 2

Thank you, Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Obama Adviser Speaking on Background to Ryan Lizza. Thank you for so boldly and visibly injecting into our politics the phrase “leading from behind.” Thank you for associating it with your boss. Thanks for confirming that our current president believes his task is to accommodate American decline. Thanks for reminding us how high a priority he places on appeasing those who revile us. And thanks for explaining that our Leader from Behind sees his role as “shepherding us through this phase” of appeasement and decline.

After all, we, like sheep, had gone astray. Under the spell of John Wayne, Rambo, and Ronald Reagan, we’d come to believe in American exceptionalism, in a special American global role and responsibility. Or perhaps we’ve been astray from the very beginning, with all the talk from the Founding on about our distinctive task and national destiny. But now a new shepherd has come to guide us, stealthily and modestly (though, one must add, with a fair amount of personal self-promotion) away from foolish thoughts of national assertion and exertion. And toward a future of .  .  . what?

Whatever this future world will look like, it will not be pretty, nor will it be friendly to America. Lizza’s piece is titled “The Consequentialist.” The claim is that Barack Obama is a hard-headed pragmatist who judges policy choices by their real-world consequences. But who now wants to defend the consequences of Barack Obama’s foreign policy?

As Americans, we will have to hope and work for the best for the next year and a half. But, as Charles Krauthammer has pointed out, “from President Obama’s shocking passivity during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution to his dithering on Libya, acting at the very last moment, then handing off to a bickering coalition, yielding the current bloody stalemate,” Obama’s has been “a foreign policy of hesitation, delay, and indecision, marked by plaintive appeals to the (fictional) ‘international community’ to do what only America can.” The consequences of leading from behind have been grave. Another four years could be disastrous.

Of course, the talk of leading from behind is mostly rationalization. When Barack Obama was only a teenager, Harvey Mansfield noted that, “From having been the aggressive doctrine of vigorous, spirited men, liberalism has become hardly more than a trembling in the presence of illiberalism.” Mansfield asked, “Who today is called a liberal for strength and confidence in defense of liberty?” Not President Obama. His administration’s lack of strength and confidence in defense of liberty, its trembling before illiberalism, its failure to lead, is now dressed up and sent out into the world as “leading from behind.”

The world isn’t much fooled. Dictators aren’t fooled. The American people aren’t fooled. Even liberals are getting hard to fool. Lizza’s article gave the Obama adviser the last word. But did even the typical New Yorker reader nod in approbation as he put down his May 2 issue and picked up his glass of Chablis?

We doubt it. It’s getting pretty difficult to avoid noticing the grand mugging by reality that we are experiencing, both abroad and at home. And the notion that the Obama administration is effectively dealing with the muggers—from Qaddafi to the budget deficit—is becoming increasingly laughable.

How do you defeat a leader from behind? With a leader from the front. All the Republicans have to do is nominate a real leader: a workhorse not a show horse; a steady hand not a flip-flopper; a profile in courage not in cleverness; a competent man or woman with strength and confidence in defense of liberty at home and abroad.

Surely this isn’t too much to ask?

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