The Buzz

Choose When to Lead

The phrase “leading from behind” garnered national attention when it was used to describe President Obama’s approach to the NATO intervention in Libya that toppled Muammar el-Qaddafi. This week, Richard Cohen took to his Washington Post column with his take on the phrase and how it has defined Obama’s foreign policy.

Cohen’s piece is a thinly veiled screed against “the sorry concoction of an Obama administration that mistakes dulcet passivity for a foreign policy.” Citing “recent events” in Libya—presumably the tragic killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens—he blames Obama’s faulty strategy for Libya’s precarious state. “Had the United States taken the lead” in the NATO operation, he contends, “someone might have been paying more attention to events there and trying to forge a government out of heavily armed militias.”

But was no one was paying attention in Iraq or Afghanistan? “Heavily armed militias” (not to mention terrorists) have wreaked havoc in Iraq, and a stable, lasting government has yet to be forged in Afghanistan after over a decade of U.S. presence, yet it seems preposterous to contend that Washington was leading from behind in either of these campaigns. So why does Cohen conclude that a more active American role in Libya would have prohibited this latest violence?

Perhaps it is not so much the quality of American leadership but the dearth of other options feuling Cohen’s bellicosity. “Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens,” he says, adding: “Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how.” Leaving aside the inflammatory hubris of this claim (and its dubious veracity), it leads down a slippery slope. If it’s true that America’s allies are incapable of leading, it seems all the more important that Washington be selective as to which conflicts it takes on. Cohen advocates a foreign policy based on “hard reasoning,” yet his howler would have the United States mired in an endless sequence of Iraqs and Afghanistans.