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The Backseat American

Washington Diarist

People cannot be led ambiguously, even if in politics a specious clarity is also hazardous. Perhaps the most exasperating aspect of Barack Obama’s presidency has been the obscurity of his philosophical and even political identity, the great mystery of his convictions and intentions, so that those who seek to understand him, commentators but also voters, are reduced to playing a tiresome game of clairvoyance: he is an idealist or he is a pragmatist; he is a fighter or he is a compromiser; he is in the game or he is the umpire. The man demands too much interpretation. His sensibility is not the most valuable gift that he can give to his country. Subtlety in political life is sometimes a dubious virtue, even if the boorishness of some Republicans makes it seem like the very condition of public service. This is especially the case in a time of crisis, which this time is. In the pursuit, and capture, and killing, of Osama bin Laden, and in his articulation of the meanings of that exhilarating act of justice, the president was dazzling: he acted boldly, unilaterally, without a crippling regard for personal risk or for what his hero Niebuhr once called “the immoral elements in all historical success,” for the sake of a principled and deeply felt objective that he imposed upon his apparatus as its top priority, clearly, like a man with a talent for historical action. That is to say, he acted somewhat uncharacteristically. He did not lead from behind.

“Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine,” Ryan Lizza recently wrote in The New Yorker. “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’” That adviser should be seriously considering the private sector: his coinage is a minor Orwellianism, though it is descriptively apt. He, the unnamed West Wing genius, explained to Lizza that “‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world ... But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’” The features of “this phase” that require such “stealth and modesty,” Lizza reported, are “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.” Those, of course, are the two great clichés of American foreign policy in our era, the two hallmarks of the conventional foreign policy mind. (More succinctly, they are what Fareed Zakaria peddles.) The notion that America’s strategic position may be identified with, or reduced to, America’s economic position is absurd. The Iranians and the Libyans, the Japanese and the Haitians, the Israelis and the Palestinians, do not appeal to China or to Brazil in their search for safety and freedom. The Arab awakening has demonstrated that we are no longer reviled in parts of the world that have been famous—in the doctrinaire view of certain liberals, for whom the Arab attitude toward America is the only aspect of Arab life that is somehow still frozen—for reviling us: the democrats and the dissidents look yearningly to the American president. Nor was the historical primacy of the United States ever a historical monopoly: we have had rivals before, and our rivalries were defined, and vindicated, by our differences. Even at 9 percent unemployment, then, and in full view of the almighty renminbi, we are still the United States of America. But never mind that now. It is Barack Obama’s grand (except that such an enterprise can never be grand) experiment in American non-leadership that I wish to ponder.

It is not only abroad that Obama leads from behind: his role in the health care debate was conspicuously inconspicuous, and in the budget debate he has oscillated between speaking to the Democrats and speaking for the Democrats. He seems to believe that the only good consensus is a real consensus, which is true enough; but he seems to believe also that the only real consensus is the one that emerges naturally, organically, without intellectual pressure or political coercion, from the prior positions of the relevant parties. He looks for the largest overlap between the antecedent realities, and calls it his policy. Such an approach is curiously accepting of what already is. It is respectful, and also an excess of respect. Listening is one of the political arts, but it is a passive art. Sometimes the overlap of the interests, the answer that merely emerges, is insufficient or wrong (a judgment that can be made only from outside the consensus), or it is not what the president believes should be done. What then? A president is more than a convener or a facilitator. Leading, after all, means not following. Leadership takes people to positions and places that they did not formerly hold and occupy. I understand that leaders must be realistic, because an idea that cannot work is almost as bad as a false idea; but the border between realism and a collusion with reality must be vigilantly patrolled. In a system of compromises, all compromises are not equal; and sometimes compromise is an expression of timidity, or of the fear of a dignified loss.

I do not burn my midnight oil over scholarly studies of NATO, but it is my impression that the history of NATO has been the history of the American leadership of NATO. As for multilateralism, it has usually taken the form of many states agreeing to adopt a course of action proposed or prodded by the United States. “Leading from behind” is a new orientation to America’s role in the world, more ambitious in its renunciation of ambition—and more mistaken—even than the “extended hand.” It is not as smart as it thinks it is. In place of the ugly American, the backseat American—but so far the Libyan results of the backseat American are not edifying. We are standing by idly as Misurata endures the fate that we intervened to spare Benghazi. We are denying NATO the aircraft that will tip the balance on the battlefield. We are refusing to entertain a political objective, neither recognizing the rebel government nor releasing the funds with which they may adequately arm themselves. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs even speaks of a stalemate as an acceptable outcome. The president is enjoying another teaching moment—not about rightful intervention or the promotion of democracy, but about the superfluousness of American leadership. It is a teaching refuted by his own counter-terrorism policy, and by much else. Modesty can be misplaced, in nations as in individuals, and sometimes it is only another face of vanity.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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