Shadow Government

What would leading from behind look like in Syria?

The best description of the Obama doctrine in the Middle East is the one offered by a White House staffer in a revealing interview last year: "leading from behind."

At the time, the moniker was meant to signify that the Obama administration would let other states take the more prominent lead positions in confronting the challenges posed by the serial revolutions known as the "Arab Uprising." The United States would nudge things along from the back seat. This fit rather well with how the administration saw the Libyan intervention, though in truth the allies began to falter and the U.S. role grew much larger than advertised. However, it is hard to believe that without the out-in-front leadership of the U.K. and France, the Obama administration would have pushed forward a Libyan intervention. If the United States led at all in Libya, it was from behind the U.K. and France, and arguably behind the Arab League.

There is another way in which "leading from behind" might be an apt description of the Obama administration approach in the region: leading from behind events. That is, rather than dictating events -- what was called "hurrying up history" in the Bush era -- the administration has been more willing to let events unfold, to see where history takes us and then, if possible, get on the right side of history.

This description seems to fit the Egypt story, where the United States initially was unwilling to join in the effort to push Mubarak out of office, but joined later when Mubarak's early departure was perceived as the inevitable outcome. When a different outcome took shape in Bahrain, the United States got behind that, too.

A similar story is playing out in Syria. The United States has offered strong words of outrage at the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the Syrian civil war, but has not matched dramatic rhetoric with dramatic action. Alas, there is plenty of dramatic action on the ground in Syria. The latest escalation suggests the Syrian civil war could be morphing into a full-scale conflagration.

The international community is now more than a few steps behind events -- leading from behind is becoming following from behind. And follow we must, for U.S. interests are too inextricably tied to the region for us to ignore what is happening.

President Obama often talks about trying to avoid distractions that would disrupt his focus away from what he considers to be the big issues at stake in his reelection, primarily issues of domestic policy and the economy. If events continue along their current trajectory, Syria may be one such distraction that he cannot avoid. Leading from behind may walk everyone right into a quagmire.

D. Leal Olivas/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

Congressman Adam Smith's foreign policy problem

I've just returned from a week of fishing on a remote island in Alaska, happily distant from events in the rest of the world. It brings a welcome sense of perspective when one's biggest concern is where the salmon are running. In this case it was a great week, as both the kings and silvers were feeding in abundance, and the Inboden freezer will be well-stocked with fish for months. Meanwhile I'm now playing catch up on various happenings, and over the next few days will offer thoughts on some recent foreign policy and politics items.

First up is Congressman Adam Smith's recent Foreign Policy article. Smith, a Democrat and the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, wrote here at a few days ago larding praise on the Obama administration while lambasting the Romney campaign for its foreign policy support from former Bush administration officials (hmm, sounds like a lot of us here at Shadow Government including yours truly). On substance, Smith's piece is fundamentally unserious, and certainly will not help elevate his standing as a "wise man on foreign policy." (It is generally expected of a member of Congress who aspires to be seen as a leader on national security policy to write a "big think" piece for a serious outlet like FP -- a well-crafted article can mark a member as an up-and-comer, but a poorly crafted one can do more damage than silence).

On this count Smith's article disappoints. It reads as if it were written by Democratic National Committee staff circa 2005. Like many Democratic critiques from that era, this one lambastes the Iraq war, while conveniently neglecting to mention Smith's own past support for the war. Indeed, Smith, like many Democrats, has not yet figured out how to acknowledge that by their own scoring they were wrong on Iraq twice: wrong to support the war when things were going well, but also wrong to oppose the surge, which substantially helped reverse the trajectory when things were going poorly. They seek to damn all initial supporters of the Iraq war (except themselves) but are unwilling to extend the logic by damning all opponents of the surge.

But beyond its selective history on Iraq, at its core Smith's op-ed has a much bigger problem: the Obama administration has adopted almost wholesale the so-called "discredited doctrines and reckless policies" of the Bush-Cheney administration that Smith decries. This White House's biggest foreign policy successes have almost always come when following Bush administration policies (yes, this point has been made many times before, but it bears repeating as long as tendentious articles like Smith's are being written). Policies and doctrines such as the preemptive use of force, unilateral operations, counter-insurgency warfare, indefinite detention of terrorist suspects, military tribunals, drone strikes, multilateral coalitions to pressure North Korea and Iran on their nuclear programs, strong assertions of executive authority -- all of these were controversial when developed by the Bush administration. And all have been adopted, and in some cases expanded, by the Obama administration, particularly as it continues the war against al Qaeda.

If Smith's article represents the strongest line of attack that the Obama campaign has against Gov. Romney on foreign policy, it is the flimsiest of rubber swords.

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