Richard Cohen
Richard Cohen
Opinion Writer

The price of Obama’s leading from behind

What lessons can be learned from events in Libya? That nothing good will come out of the Arab Spring? That Arabs are volatile, easily excitable and prone to acting out? That the United States, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, cannot control everything or that the United States, Mitt Romney more to the point, has tried to control nothing? In other words, is this what happens when the United States is “leading from behind”?

This phrase, you might remember, was coined in reference to Barack Obama’s reluctance to take the lead in the NATO air campaign that toppled the dictatorship of Moammar Gaddafi. And that operation, in which the French seized the initiative, was mounted to save Benghazi, the city where the insurrection started and the one where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed last week. Benghazi was saved from Gaddafi’s bloody reprisals, but not from mayhem.

Richard Cohen

Cohen writes about politics in a weekly column and on the PostPartisan blog.

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The notion that the United States can lead from behind is pitiful, the sorry concoction of an Obama administration that mistakes dulcet passivity for a foreign policy. The view from behind now has to be awfully depressing. Where once Obama could see the gallant tails of the French, the British, the Italians and some others, there is now no one. The predictably indignant Nicolas Sarkozy has been replaced by the soullessly pragmatic Francois Hollande, who has other fish to saute. NATO’s warplanes have returned to base and Libya, a tribal society, was left to fend for itself. It has not fended all that well.

Until recent events offered a rebuke, the Obama administration treated its toe-in-the-water response to the threats uttered by Gaddafi as an unalloyed success. The dictator had been ousted (and subsequently killed), no Americans had died in the effort and the wisdom of doing as little as possible was proclaimed a sterling triumph. Had the United States taken the lead, however, someone might have been paying more attention to events there and trying to forge a government out of heavily armed militias. After all, it’s not as if all of Libya was sacking the U.S. legation; it was a well-armed few. Much of the rest of the country was appalled by what happened and the president of the national congress, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, offered an apology and vowed to find the terrorists and, as always, bring them to justice.

Some things are true even though Obama is president. The Arab world is culturally a very distant shore. It will not embrace American values such as free speech and religious toleration because certain speech and certain religious practices are truly repugnant to it. The intellectual godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, spent many months in the United States and returned to Egypt loathing America and fulminating about its obscenely provocative women. The 9/11 terrorists lived among us as well — and not one of them was deterred from their mission by the sweet treats of U.S. life. I love us to pieces, but we are, for some people, awfully revolting.

Another thing. Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens. Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how. The French determination to bring Gaddafi to heel and avoid a massacre was a short-lived affair. We see what has happened in Syria. The French and British are outraged; the Turks are appalled. The Jordanians are anxious and the Saudis are indignant. Still, Bashar al-Assad remains in power because the United States will not impose a no-fly zone — and really no one else can do so. This cautious policy has resulted in many civilian deaths, a huge refugee crisis and the comfy feeling in the White House that we have ducked another quagmire. The situation may now be beyond remedy, and the chirpy forecasts that Assad is a goner are way past their pull date. Every president gets his foreign policy regret. Syria will be Obama’s.

Romney was wrong and ham-fisted and alarmingly premature to criticize Obama for a statement put out by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. He is both wrong and dishonest to keep repeating the canard about Obama being a serial apologizer. But he is right in sensing that beyond the very Obamaness of Obama himself — the quality that made him a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the pupal stage of his presidency — lurks a foreign policy that has been more sentiment and aspiration than hard reasoning. Leading from behind is not a nifty phrase. In Libya, it’s an indictment.

cohenr@washpost.com

 
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