Erik Voeten makes some useful observations on political leadership (via Drezner):
The point is not that leaders who make good decisions and have persuasive power cannot make a difference. I won’t underestimate the power of good (and bad) ideas to shape outcomes. But lamenting “poor leadership” provides little guidance on understanding what is going wrong or how things could go better. It is with good reason that good leadership is usually only recognized after the fact and even then perceptions often adjust as facts change (see Kohl and Mitterand). Believing that things will go better if only there were better leadership is like wishing for politicians to “do the right thing:” it is a perfectly reasonable desire but not much of a prescription or explanation.
Voeten and Drezner are refuting the idea that the main thing lacking in response to the eurozone crisis is sufficient political leadership, but this could be applied to other crises just as easily. The conflict in Syria is probably the most obvious other example of an ongoing crisis that all major governments consider to be something that needs to be resolved, but they cannot or will not reach a consensus on how to resolve it. In the Syrian case, calls for more “leadership” aren’t intended to create consensus at all. They are intended as goads to get the U.S. to adopt a specific set of measures that don’t make any sense and will make the crisis worse than it is.
One of the common refrains from interventionists on Syria is that the U.S. “must lead”, or the U.S. has mistakenly “abandoned” leadership, or that it is “time for U.S. leadership.” Of course, these calls for U.S. leadership typically demand some form of U.S.-supported military intervention in Syria’s conflict. As far as proponents of U.S. “leadership” in Syria are concerned, this is the only kind of leadership that counts. It doesn’t matter that the substance of their proposals is no good, and it doesn’t seem to concern them that the measures they recommend would prolong and intensify the conflict.
The conflict in Syria isn’t happening because of a lack of American leadership. Following the recommendations of the people calling for U.S. leadership (i.e., military intervention or military support for the opposition) in Syria won’t hasten the end of the conflict. There is nothing more useless than railing about a lack of leadership in response to a crisis in which there appear to be no good or workable options available to political leaders.