May 10, 2011
“Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’”
“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy,” by Ryan Lizza
The New Yorker, May 2, 2011
“Leading from behind” is TMR’s early nominee for the 2011 “Tropes for Dopes” prize, a field crowded with entries during the last few months in which “Arab spring” has competed for above-the-fold space with a patchwork of prosaic rhetoric, some artful, some not, some tropes, some not.
For example, there is Donald Trump’s solipsistic response to the release of Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate:
"Today I'm very proud of myself, because I've accomplished something that nobody else has been able to accomplish. I want to look at it, but I hope it's true, so that we can get on to much more important matters.
"I am really honored, frankly, to have played such a big role in hopefully, hopefully getting rid of this issue."
Or Michele Bachman’s declaration at a recent New Hampshire political event:
“You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.”
And, of course, another contender for the prize will be Sarah Palin’s rhetorical question about U. S. involvement in Libya during an otherwise vacuous interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News:
“Do we use the term ‘intervention?’ Do we use ‘war? Or ‘squirmish?”
Ah well, on publication eve of The New Yorker magazine article, President Obama addressed the nation near midnight with the stunning news that America had successfully concluded its search for Osama bin Laden in an audacious raid inside his Pakistani citadel.
Despite the indisputable frontal disposition of this raid, “leading from behind” may well be one of those ‘sticky phrases,’ as Malcolm Gladwell calls them, that pundits and politicians may find advantageous for future use, so it seems an apt time to offer an alternate perspective.
Aside from this misnomer having been an on-the-spot response from an adviser of unreported rank, who is presumably more adept at policy analysis than crafting figures of speech – aka, ‘tropes’ – it is both misleading and thin on substance.
One might say, for example, that what this President has understood, better than those who have followed the 26th President, is the real meaning of:
“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
It’s increasingly apparent that Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum is central to Barack Obama’s persona and leadership profile than most have understood – an idea that emerges from reading David Remnick’s masterful Obama biography, “The Bridge.”
In fact, if one examines the actions and accomplishments during Barack Obama’s 28 months in office, for better or for worse, most have been in frontal in nature, as have the polemics of his critics.
Much to the dismay of Obamaphobes and Obamaphiles alike, Barack Obama has neither articulated nor espoused anything that might resemble a “doctrine,” including the faux charge the he is redesigning American foreign and national security policy to a ‘leading from behind’ architecture.
Doctrines, like ideologies, are straitjackets. They encumber freedom of thought, expression, and action. They are as legally binding as wedding vows, and even less enforceable than ‘prenups.’
And despite official Washington’s long-held belief that a President without a doctrine is a like a CEO without a strategic plan or an NFL coach without a game plan, we have a President whose understanding of recent history and the emerging new global order leads him to eschew formulaic thinking and action, and instead to display a deftness with ambiguity, paradox, and the conundrums that are the hallmark of life in the 21st century.
It has been said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose; however, the lessons of recent years suggest that while we campaign by bumper sticker, we must govern by a higher order of thoughtfulness that will always look to some as dithering or doubt.
We must not confuse the velocity of the digital age and the instantaneity of the 24/7 news cycle with the heavier lifting requirements of good governance in an era when fundamental change is all about us.
To some that may well seem like “leading from behind,” but it is precisely the kind of leadership this nation would have profited from in the 2002 and 2003 when a distinctly American version of kabuki led the country to a war it need not have fought.
TMR is willing to put its substantial capital reserves on the notion that no edition of Bartlett’s Quotations will include an observation from an American president that says:
“Gee, if only I’d had a doctrine.”