US election 2012: Why ‘leading from behind’ might not be the best way to take American forward

Let’s be perfectly clear: this year’s American presidential election was not a referendum on American foreign policy. Nor did it involve much discussion of the subject. During most of the campaign, the words “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” were scarcely mentioned.
During the single debate on foreign policy, both candidates turned back to domestic issues whenever possible. Mitt Romney did make one trip abroad – to Israel, Poland and, of course, to London during the Olympics – but without much success, as Londoners will remember. He made few references to that expedition afterwards.
President Obama’s foreign policy team will nevertheless return to their offices this week feeling reinforced in whatever beliefs they have held up until now, and reassured about the general direction of their activities: that’s the inevitable result of a re-election. At the very least, they will tell themselves, nothing they have done or failed to do over the past four years proved so harmful that the president lost his job.
We can therefore presume that, barring surprise events, there will be no major changes in the general direction of Obama’s foreign affairs. All of which makes this an excellent moment to ask where, exactly, that general direction is leading.
The first Obama administration’s foreign policy is quite difficult to analyse, not least because its members have seemed uninterested in creating anything so coherent as an “Obama Doctrine”, a clear set of principles that could be applied to any situation or that defined their world view.
Instead, the phrase most frequently used about the president’s style abroad is one coined by an aide, and now used by his detractors: “leading from behind”. Though it isn’t at all well-defined, it seems to mean, more or less, that while Obama does not eschew the use of force, he does not want to use it unilaterally, he does not want to sacrifice American lives, and he does not want to use forceful or aggressive rhetoric while doing so.
And thus he has used drones instead of ground troops in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he has used cyberwarfare in Iran, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden, not an army. He stays away from problems he thinks he cannot solve. He doesn’t seem to have views on the eurozone crisis, and he doesn’t have much to say about Russia either.
Sometimes this works. Perhaps the most successful “from behind” Obama policy was the Western-led venture in Libya last year. Although the US military co-ordinated the entire operation, providing the logistics and the intelligence, most of the bombing raids were carried out by Britain, France and other European countries.
The UN Security Council gave a shaky blessing of sorts to the operation, the Arab League didn’t object and no American ground troops were ever sent to Libya itself.
In Libya, this approach had clear advantages. The Libyan revolution remained Libyan: those who led it took responsibility for it. Even now, Libyans don’t automatically blame the US or the West when things go wrong.
Despite the tragic murder of the American ambassador, the United States is broadly admired in Libya, and Westerners are welcome. Success did require a large dose of luck: Tripoli fell at exactly the right moment. Had it not, the Libya coalition might have proven shaky. Its members were becoming impatient. More to the point, they were running out of ammunition: without the United States air force, Nato’s capabilities are severely limited.
Obama will not always be so lucky, and indeed the Libya formula has proved a poor blueprint for policymaking elsewhere. The Obama administration has appeared utterly stymied in Syria, for example, where the same optimal conditions for hands-off intervention do not exist. Russia and China have successfully blocked UN involvement.
There is no provisional government to recognise. The rebels do not hold any large cities or large chunks of territory, and there are many more neighbours — including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey – with stakes in the outcome. There is no “from behind” or “from the air” military option that would automatically ensure a rebel victory.
Nor will the “lead from behind” model provide much help when the president thinks through policies in Iran. It’s true that very tough sanctions are finally starting to bite. Iran’s currency has collapsed, its oil sales have plummeted and the regime is now prohibiting the export of gold and the import of luxury goods.
Whether this will make the Islamic Republic more accommodating – or more desperate, and therefore more eager to produce nuclear weapons – is still unknown. In the event of a military conflict between Iran and Israel, the United States would still be drawn into the fighting. It would quickly find itself the only power in the world sufficiently equipped to make a difference.
But there is a deeper problem with “leading from behind” as well, at least as applied outside Libya: this is a tactic, not a strategy. In practice, it often seems that while the Obama administration is determined not to use military force, it hasn’t really worked out the other options either. There may be good reasons not to send weapons or soldiers to Syria, but there is no good reason not to launch a major diplomatic effort designed to unite and train the rebels, to channel aid into rebel-held areas, to negotiate with all concerned. Perhaps the military is a blunt instrument, but it often seems as if the US has no others.
In practice, the Obama administration also appears at times to be drifting, reacting to crises rather than mapping out a clear strategy or thinking them through in advance. It is frequently and correctly observed that this president pays less attention to Europe and to traditional transatlantic partnerships than his predecessors (a trend that began, to be fair, under President Bush).
Although the president’s African heritage and Indonesian upbringing are sometimes blamed for this benign neglect, a better explanation is his administration’s tendency to react only when there is an urgent need to do so. As there are no European wars, political disasters or terrorist crises to grab the president’s attention, Europe is easy to ignore.
Obama’s anti-colonial Kenyan heritage hasn’t made him anti-British either. By all accounts he is happy to go on paying lip service to the Special Relationship, and David Cameron’s gushing congratulations probably don’t hurt.
But in a world where the US no longer wants to lead everything all of the time, expect Americans to ask their allies what they bring to the table, whether in the form of weapons, diplomatic commitments or financing. If Cameron wants to “do something” in Syria, he may have to propose a way to do it himself.
This administration does have some preferences. From the beginning, Obama has made it clear that he would like to reduce America’s military and diplomatic footprint in the Middle East and to increase the US presence in the Far East.
The little-noticed fact that the US is well on its way to becoming self-sufficient in energy is part of this: as the technology to develop shale oil improves, the strategic significance of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia will decrease. Still, Israel and Iran aren’t going away, and this much-vaunted “tilt towards Asia” can easily be thrown off track by any one of a number of crises.
Obama’s reactiveness and instinctive caution make America’s actions over the next four years hard to predict. What if the withdrawal from Afghanistan begins to go badly wrong? What if al-Qaeda regroups in North Africa? What if the Syrian conflict spills into Lebanon, Palestine and Israel? Because the administration hasn’t laid down clear guiding principles, it’s very hard to know what its members will do.
Budgets and domestic politics do constrain the White House in ways that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Downsizing the Pentagon seems bound to happen, not so much for political reasons as for financial ones: the United States can no longer afford its extraordinarily expensive army.
Foreign wars are unpopular, domestic priorities loom larger and this president will instinctively prefer to spend money at home. Events may intervene, of course, and force Obama to take up arms once again. But it won’t be because he wanted to do so.

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