Obama's 'lead from behind' strategy has US in full retreat

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Obama's 'lead from behind' strategy has US in full retreat

Feb 6, 2015 2 min read
James Jay Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.

"Leading from behind." A White House official coined that phrase in 2011 to describe President Obama's Libyan policy. His political opponents quickly seized on that characterization as an apt metaphor for how the president conducts foreign policy.

While the administration pushed back, liberal pundits embraced the phrase - at least initially. "If leading from behind brings the success of the Libyan intervention... 'lead me from behind,' Mr. President," cheered New York Times columnist Roger Cohen.

The Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky purred, "...this Libya operation is, so far, not only a big success, but also a historic accomplishment in American history."

That was then. Libya today is a hell hole. No serious observer of foreign policy regards that operation as a success. Indeed, the world today is littered with spectacular U.S. foreign policy failures.

Remember the Russian "reset"? Dialog and a nuclear arms treaty that let Moscow stand pat while we reduced our arsenal were going to lead to a new era of understanding. Instead, Crimea’s been annexed; Ukraine is under attack, and relations between Washington and the Kremlin are worse than any time since the Cold War.

Pulling out of Iraq according to a timetable rather than the situation on the ground? That opened the door for ISIS to get a strong foothold. Today, it controls a third of Iraq and much of Syria.

Speaking of Syria, our dabbling in its civil wars has done little or nothing to curb the slaughter of innocents. Meanwhile, Islamist extremists are rampaging across half of North Africa.

The White House has nothing to show for years of shuttle diplomacy trying to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, the two sides seem farther apart than ever.

What about November's big "climate deal" with China? It's mostly a joke. As National Review's Jillian Kay Melchior noted: " Beijing hasn't actually agreed to much: It will try to "stop increasing" carbon emissions by 2030 - which is a slanted way of saying its emissions will continue to grow for another 16 years...."

If Washington wants to pursue a truly consequential agreement with China, it should focus on addressing Beijing's aggressive cyber espionage and its irresponsible territorial claims. These provocations are rubbing relations raw, not just between us and China, but among China and all our allies in the South China Sea.

As for our allies, the administration has managed to antagonize virtually all of them. Canada, for example, is angry over the Keystone pipeline. Israel is apoplectic over White House leaks of sensitive military information. Many traditionally friendly nations in Latin America, the Middle East and Central Europe feel neglected.

Even our staunchest ally, Great Britain, is miffed. While it has backed President Obama's play in Libya and elsewhere, he has been all wobbly in supporting the UK on issues like retaining control of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands.

Today, the only foreign policy initiatives the president can cite as "progress" are dubious at best. Engaging with dictatorial, human-rights abusing regimes like Cuba and Iran is a sad spectacle for the world's leading democracy - one that many look to as a beacon of freedom.

All that said, it is not fair to label Mr. Obama's approach as "leading from behind." He often takes the initiative to address foreign policy problems. It's just that what he is doing is not working.

What's worse, he appears to believe that his way of doing things will somehow turn out fine. That means more of the same. Is it rational to expect that two more years of Mr. Obama's foreign policy will produce better results than the first six?

By 2016, both Democratic and Republican presidential hopefuls will be running away from Obama's foreign policy. And they won't even need a slur like "leading from behind" to describe it.

 - James Jay Carafano is vice president of Defense and Foreign Policy Studies.

Originally distributed by the Tribune Content Agency