Western countries are agonizing over what to do in Syria. As Assad’s government troops, with the aid of their allies, continue to pound cities like Homs and appear to be winning the civil war, Great Britain and its allies are hesitating in furnishing weapons to the rebels. Who are the rebels? How can we be sure that the weapons delivered will stay in the right hands? How can we be sure that the weapons will be enough to turn the tide? All these questions remain unanswered as the slaughter continues while hundreds of thousands of refugees - those who are lucky enough not to be trapped - flee the country.
But what about the United States?
In an article in the New Yorker in 2011, the phrase “leading from behind” was used by an Obama adviser in an interview with Ryan Lizza to describe the Administration’s approach to Libya. A very lively debate ensued with conservatives poking fun at the lack of real leadership by Obama. “Leading from Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors Who Decide for Him” became a New York Times bestseller, describing a president who is indecisive and overwhelmed by competing impulses and advisors.
In defense of President Obama, some have quoted Nelson Mandela in his 1994 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” “I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” Reference could also have been made to Max Weber’s charismatic leader whose inner strength causes people to follow. According to Weber, the charismatic leader is a reluctant leader.
A more recent positive description of President Obama’s “leadership style” appeared in the July 15 New York Times. Peter Baker, trying to explain a lack of public announcements about Egypt from the president, wrote that “Some compare Mr. Obama’s approach to the ‘hidden hand’ style of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who often steered events behind the scenes without being public about his role.” Baker concluded: “On Egypt, the White House has detected no advantage in Mr. Obama’s addressing the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, just as the administration has delayed taking action like cutting off aid, as required by law in the case of a military coup. The president’s public reticence reflects a judgment that speaking out could do more harm than good.”
Whether it is “leading from behind” or “the hidden hand,” the current style of the president is different from what we saw during his initial campaign as well as during the first term in office. The diminishing number of public announcements and press conferences from the Oval Office confirm this tendency.
It is not only the president who seems to be withdrawing. In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power retracted several comments and written statements she had made as a crusading journalist for human rights, some about Israel, and others about the United States. According to Brian Knowlton in the July 18 International Herald Tribune – the global edition of the New York Times – “Ms. Power was open about acknowledging that the candor of her past comments, made without the constraints of government office, had in some ways come back to haunt her.” - comments she that had made criticizing Israel and the United States. Knowlton quotes Power: ‘“I would never apologize for America – America is the light to the world.”’
Is there a shift taking place concerning the United States? While the United States was the driving force behind liberal internationalism, today we are observing a changing policy which sees other countries like France take the lead in Mali or organizations like NATO in Libya. “Leading from behind” or “the hidden hand” could easily be portrayed as avoiding global responsibility. It may be said, “if you didn’t break it, you don’t have to fix it,” but it could also be said, “if you made it and it is failing, you have to try to fix it.” In both the lack of public denouncements of the massacres in Syria and the timorous testimony of Ms. Power, we are witnessing not just a change in policy, but a decline of any form of leadership, certainly from the moral perspective.
July 18, 2013