Micah Zenko attacks the pundit obsession with presidential “leadership” in foreign policy:
Second, leadership appeals also assume a wholly unrealistic presidential capability to compel U.S. allies and friends to adopt previously rejected policies. The world is, to quote the title of a recent Daniel Henninger op-ed, “Looking for Leadership” in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Cyprus — “All these matters have been treated so far with degrees of U.S. diffidence.” The unstated belief here is that just a few more presidential phone calls or country visits would catalyze all the relevant stakeholders to selflessly and suddenly act in a coordinated manner to resolve persistent foreign policy challenges. Moreover, since these challenges have occurred only because of the willful neglect of the Oval Office, it is President Obama’s personal obligation to correct them.
Third, leadership appeals are often thinly veiled demands that the president authorize the use of military force.
This touches on what I was talking about in my recent Rubio column. Advocates for more assertive and activist policies tend to define U.S. “leadership” in terms of dictating to others, inserting the U.S. in others’ affairs and conflicts, and launching attacks on other states if and when they are failing to comply with what the hawks want. Hawks usually define anything other than that as proof of U.S. “retreat” or “decline.” The idea that the U.S. shouldn’t involve itself in a foreign crisis is hard enough for interventionists to fathom, but the idea that there are hard limits to what it can constructively do in many cases is simply beyond them. Most international problems are difficult and complicated enough that exerting more willpower, demonstrating more “resolve,” and showing more “leadership” will very rarely make a significant difference.
As Zenko says, demanding “leadership” is usually just a cheap way to express disapproval of current policy without having to justify the more aggressive policy that the critic wants, or it serves as code for warmongering in less aggressive language. As code for military intervention, “leadership” becomes one of a number of awful euphemisms that hawkish pundits use when they want to clamor for raining down death and destruction on some new foreign country. Saying that the U.S. should launch an unnecessary war and kill hundreds or thousands of people that have done nothing to us sounds unappealing. Saying that the U.S. should “show leadership” on a particular issue sounds much nicer. Calling for “leadership” on Syria or Iran, for instance, is quite dangerous, because it obscures and minimizes what this “leadership” will require.
The call for “leadership” is typically, though not always, one that is associated with a more confrontational, aggressive, and unilateral policy. To wage a war without U.N. authorization, for example, is taken as evidence of “leadership,” while refusing to violate international law is equated with “dithering” or “inaction.” According to this view, the only “engagement” with the world that counts is one that involves making shows of strength and interfering in other states’ internal affairs. To do otherwise, even if it is an attempt at diplomatic engagement, is to “disengage” from the world.”
All of this is linked to the claim that the rest of the world hungers for U.S. “leadership,” as if most other nations are eager to fall in line and be told what to do. A more accurate way to think about this claim is that other states would like the U.S. to take on the costs of responding to a given crisis so that they don’t have to. Of course, if the U.S. keeps obliging other states by assuming burdens that aren’t our responsibility, they will become used to the arrangement. The U.S. is “indispensable” only in the sense that our government keeps encouraging other states to expect that the U.S. will always be taking a “leadership” role in their regional problems. If the U.S. stopped giving other states that encouragement, I suspect they would find that we weren’t remotely as “indispensable” as some of us wanted the rest of the world to believe.