Blog No. 71. The Annals of Leading From Behind, Part I

Part I. The Islamic State and the Search for a Strategy

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that President Obama has never, at least publicly, described his policy as “leading from behind.” The phrase originated in a 2011 article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker and was attributed to an unidentified “adviser” to Obama, later said to be a (still unidentified) “White House official.” The phrase was initially used with respect to American strategy in Libya, but so many found it an apt description of Obama’s approach in the Middle East generally and, indeed, throughout the world that it took hold. (That etymology will remind some of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 address, which came to be widely known as his “malaise speech” although Carter never used that word, speaking rather of a “crisis of confidence.”)

In any case, it does seem to us that the President has been attempting to lead from behind both in confronting the Islamic State and in dealing with Russia’s adventurism in Europe. The essence of the strategy appears to be to limit America’s commitment, militarily and otherwise, while encouraging others to make greater commitments. This approach worked well for Tom Sawyer in getting his friends to whitewash a fence, but its application in foreign policy is far more difficult. This Part I will discuss the Islamic State and Part II will take up the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. […]