Another Republican primary came and went this past Tuesday, with Mitt Romney sweeping to a decisive victory in Illinois. His victory speech Tuesday night represented an opportunity to coalesce the conservative movement behind his supposed inevitability. He trotted out his usual stump speech, focusing his sights primarily on President Obama after congratulating his fellow Republican candidates. He reiterated some of his main talking points and mentioned that Obama “leads from behind”, a phrase that has been thrown around a lot in this campaign cycle
While this is definitely not a phrase that will lend itself to Obama’s campaign literature, what exactly does it mean, and where did it come from? The phrase arose last April when think tanks and policy analysts were struggling to contextualize and describe the main thrust of Obama’s foreign policy, which was being complicated by the tenuous events of the Arab Spring. Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker cited an administration official who stated that the President was “leading from behind” and concluded that “It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: 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. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength.”
So, when Mitt Romeny derisively alludes to Obama “leading from behind” what exactly is he accusing him of doing? Mostly this “accusation” comes in the context of situations in the Middle East: Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. American involvement in Libya was the real catalyst for this accusation, and Mitt Romney went on the record stating that he believed that the President “had every piece of information he needed to be able to take action…[but] there’s no question… that his inability to have a clear and convincing foreign policy made him delegate to the United Nations and the Arab League a decision about our involvement there.” Romney believed that Obama wavered on the decision, and should have been more decisive instead of allowing the decision to fall to the international community.
In fairness to Romney, we have the benefit of hindsight when we discuss this topic because it became obvious that Obama’s call was the right one. We allowed the Libyan people to rid themselves of a brutal oil dictator while not losing a single soul from the American military. By all accounts, the decision to work with the international community was a resounding success, and the ability of the United States to tread the waters of Middle Eastern conflicts without becoming bogged down in a protracted, bloody war was cause for celebration.
The position that Romney had taken was an extension of the neo-conservatism of the Bush administration, one that called for swift and decisive action. Romney cited the safe haven given to the Lockerbie bomber in Libya as enough cause for the full military might of the United States, much like [one of] Bush’s rationales for war in Iraq was the safe haven for Al-Qaeda being provided there. Romney seeks to continue the cowboy mentality of freedom-loving, flag-waving, bomb-dropping leadership style of the Bush administration that signaled to the entire world that we were going to do things our way, no matter the opinions of the international community. This type of thinking brought on some of the worst anti-American sentiment in history, and despite our lofty opinions of ourselves, America was reviled in much of the world for her arrogance.
It leads me into one of the great cognitive dissonances in American politics. The same party that brands itself as the party of Christian values, and fights for the sanctity of life in the womb will show a decided lack of humility when they choose to use our military forces to kill people. Declaring that we were responsible for the liberation of the Iraqi people was an arrogant opinion. Deciding that we didn’t need anyone else’s help showed a complete lack of humility.
When Obama took office there was a clear shift in this thinking. The new President realized that the years of American hegemony in the world were in their twilight, and that the policies that led us in the desert quagmires were misguided. Instead of waving the stars and stripes out in the front of a tank battallion barreling towards Baghdad, Obama allowed the people of Libya to fight for their own self-determination. It showed a great sense of humility for the President to declare that he would support the Libyan people in their battle, not decide to fight the battle himself.
Using this framework of allowing people their own sovereignty, Obama oversaw the toppling of three North African dictators, ended the war in Iraq, drew down our forces in Afghanistan, and ended the life of the world’s most notorious dictator. While it is too much to presume that these things wouldn’t have happened if John McCain had won the election, it is an interesting thought experiment to think of how many Americans could have been killed in Libya if the same man who once sang “bomb bomb bomb bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of a Beach Boys song had been the one making that decision.
It becomes clear that the foreign policy framework so described as “leading from behind” has been an absolute success. I guess, that is only if you define success as ending the tyrrany of dictators, preserving the safety of our troops, and restoring our image in the world. That is why I am not sure why “leading from behind” is such a derisive term for Mitt Romney. I don’t really understand what a more desirable outcome could have been for the United States from the past three years. If he would have rather put more of our troops in front of bullets, or made hastier decisions, I’m not sure that would have led to better results.
Perhaps it really just boils down to arrogance. Romney believes that the American President has the right to act unilaterally throughout the world as he see fit. Obama believes that the presidency is best used to support the consensus of a sovereign people. Even if “leading from behind” isn’t a catchy campaign slogan, it illustrates a policy that works. Really, the only argument that Republicans have against Obama’s foreign policy is it’s name, and if that’s the case – then Romney has reduced what should be a real and lively discussion on foreign affairs to semantics and name-calling, and that is why Romney is campaigning from behind.