From an adult lifetime working on hotly contested foreign policy issues, I have a pretty finely tuned nonsense detector when it comes to policy questions being grossly distorted to score cheap political points. The NATO support for Libyans rising up against Gaddafi is a case in point. When President Obama curtailed the US role and called on Arab nations and our European allies to do some of the heavy lifting, Republicans trotted out their very best superficial nationalism.
Presidential candidates like Mitt Romney got so worked up and indignant that he barely gave a thought to the rationale for President Obama’s policy — the need for other members of the international community to contribute their share toward progress and problem-solving – or whether it might actually work. An unnamed Obama administration official’s regrettable phrase about “leading from behind,” quoted in a Ryan Lizza New Yorker piece, made the cheap thrill all the more thrilling.
At heart, most Republican arguments are the same: US policy needs to be firmer, more resolute, uncompromising, unwavering, resolute and insistent. More like we really mean it! It’s a pretty flimsy if not delusional premise: that the United States can bend others to our will just by being resolute. Exactly how will that work? How many places will we engage militarily? How many sets of sanctions will we impose? Will we need any international support?
Except for the right wing’s misplaced vanity, there’s no reason the United States has to position itself at the forefront of every important struggle in the world. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it recently about the brutal crackdown in Syria, having pressure on Bashar Assad come from others represents “the kind of world I want to see, where everyone else isn’t standing on the sidelines while Americans lay down our lives. Part of leading is making sure you get other people on the field.”
Which was precisely the Obama administration’s idea in Libya. In Obama’s view, a UN Security Council-sanctioned, NATO-implemented operation to defend Libyan civilians against Gaddafi was an opportunity to induce other nations like Britain, France, Italy (even Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) to take significant international responsibility. In Monday’s Politico, the same Ben Smith who covered Mitt Romney’s late-March second-guessing on Libya took a second look at “leading from behind” to see if Obama might be onto something. (By the way, even a limited US role has entailed thousands of sorties by American aircraft.)
The Republicans thought they had a winning issue, but this is a debate Democrats should welcome. The right wing offers the idea that American leadership is a matter of ignoring the concerns and misgivings of others. They view it as a sign of weakness for the US to accommodate concerns or step back and let other nations take the lead. Mistrust toward the United States must be denied rather than defused, and international goodwill is a luxury.
Ultimately that will be a losing argument. Despite what the right wing says, suspicions about America’s intentions and leadership are not a matter of self-doubt but of international political reality. It’s something to be recognized and softened, rather than bulldozed through. Most Americans understand the need to convert international resistance into support. They realize the importance of getting the world’s help. As it’s often said, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Besides, for Republicans to win this argument, they have to airbrush the history of Bush-Cheney foreign policy into a glowing success. Think they can do that?
Photo credit: US Air Force