Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Leading From Behind?

by Elliott Abrams
April 25, 2011

For those seeking a better understanding of Obama administration foreign policy, a recent article by Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker provides a useful guide—though not always in the way Mr. Lizza intended.

Here are the more important insights that emerge from the article.

1. Developing his views as a new senator, the President consulted “a broad range of experts” that consisted of people on the Left plus Zbigniew Brzezinski. Is that a strange mix? Not in one sense: What that eclectic group agreed on was that the United States must do far less in the world, stop intervening, and be more modest in asserting American power. This is the view the president took when campaigning against Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

2. While other officials are mentioned, one is left with the impression that foreign policy is entirely made inside the president’s head. There is no sense that the President relies upon or even deeply respects the minds of the officials he has appointed. He needs to be careful of them, for people like Gates and Clinton have influence, followers, and large bureaucratic machines at their disposal. But that is different from seeking their advice because you think they are smart and knowledgeable and know things you may not. This also applied to Richard Holbrooke, who Lizza says “found himself in the unusual circumstance of being ignored.” Lizza describes Obama as “The Consequentialist,” which is the title of the article, and the article conveys a clear sense that no one’s views are really consequential except the President’s own.

3. Lizza writes that the president was not keen on a strong human rights policy in part because “Tyrannical regimes are less likely to make deals with you if you talk persistently about overthrowing them.”  This sounds accurate to me and helps explain the administration’s weakness in pushing Mubarak and others—China, for example—on human rights. But it reveals a deep misunderstanding of human rights policy, which is not about overthrowing regimes. It is about pushing for decency and elemental respect for individual rights. Moreover, it is simply untrue that regimes are always less likely to make deals when under human rights pressure. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t.

4. Many critics have argued that the Obama administration seemed annoyed when Iranians rose up in June 2009 after the elections there were stolen. It appeared that the president was set on engagement with the ayatollahs, and was not at all pleased to see Iranians demanding freedom. Now we have it from someone who served in the administration: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” In the annals of American human rights policy, the phrase “we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters” will hold a special place of dishonor.

5. “Obama officials often expressed impatience with questions about theory or about the elusive quest for an Obama doctrine,” Lizza writes. They deprecate the search for and utility of a “grand synthesis.” Instead they seek “bureaucratic efficiency.” Fair enough, but that is like saying they choose to walk and not chew gum. Any administration needs efficient, effective policy and also basic comprehensibility. In the Middle East, the administration has not shown bureaucratic efficiency; it has been late in its reactions to every crisis from the Iranian election in June 2009 to Syria today. And the complaints from allies, domestic critics, and the press are not about the lack of a grand theory but about the lack of any decent explanation of how it all fits together. Just take one example: we called for the departure of our long-time ally Mubarak, but do not call for the departure of the vicious, anti-American Assad.

6.  Anyway, it turns out there is indeed a grand synthesis: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’” It strikes me that if a critic of the president had so described his foreign policy, that critic would be accused of sarcasm and disrespect. But as Lizza writes, that summary “does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding.” Except that it is not a balance but an abdication. For example, the United States cannot lead NATO from behind, as we have seen in Libya where NATO has been far less effective than anyone had expected. To lead with modesty and humility is one thing, but a refusal to understand that American leadership—from out front—is the glue that holds the Free World together is dangerous.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I’d like to know how the President expects to achieve a “balance” in his Foreign Policy when he’s apparently afraid to step on the scales ! We’re witnessing one absurdity after another from this administration and a large part of the world is going to pay a heavy price for the President’s monumental dithering .

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