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The Misguided Longing for a “Leader of the Free World”

Douglas Murray makes [1] a wholly unconvincing case that “the free world” needs the U.S. to lead it:

But despite the gibes of his domestic political opponents, the problem is not President Obama checking out of his job early. It is that most of the American political class — and a worryingly large proportion of the American public — don’t think that leading the free world is the President’s job any more. That and the fact that the ones who do think it’s America’s responsibility don’t seem full of ideas about what to do instead.

Murray definitely gets this last part wrong. There is no shortage of ideas coming from hegemonists about what the U.S. should be doing, but they are typically bad ideas. When “leadership” is so frequently identified with coercive and aggressive policies, and when those policies usually cause much more evils than they remedy, it is only natural that people recoil from demands for such “leadership.” Demanding more activist U.S. “leadership” in the world presupposes a degree of competence for “shaping” the affairs of other nations that no government could conceivably possess, and ours certainly doesn’t possess it. Longing to have a “leader of the free world” is at best little more than misguided nostalgia for a time when the world was actually far more dangerous, unstable, and alarming than it is today. When someone complains that the U.S. is failing to exercise “leadership” somewhere, it often means that it is not doing something the critic happens to want done, and more often than not that something is one of the aforementioned bad ideas.

Murray also complains that Western governments lack the ability to focus on any one problem more than others, but that is also a function of a hyper-activist foreign policy worldview. He cites Libya as an example of how quickly Western leaders lose interest in the countries they intervene in. It is now a common hawkish criticism of the governments that intervened in Libya that they neglected it over the last three years, but that conveniently ignores that Libya hawks went out of their way at the time to deny that the U.S. and its allies would have to take responsibility for Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. That was part of the effort to sell an unwise Libyan war to skeptical publics by emphasizing how cheap, easy, and short it would be. Now some of those same hawks would like to be given credit for prescience they never had by pointing to the chaos caused by the regime change they wanted. On top of all this, the U.S. would probably not have facilitated regime change in Libya except that key members of the administration and the president saw it as an occasion to exercise “leadership” in response to one of the Arab uprisings. The Libyan war and its aftermath are the sort of thing that this preoccupation with “leadership” produces.

American political leaders wouldn’t normally feel obliged to redirect their attention to each new unfortunate foreign event, but they do so because they all accept the conventional nonsense about U.S. indispensability. Once almost everything has been inflated into a “vital” interest, it becomes practically impossible to set priorities or to rank different crises in terms of their real importance to the U.S. and its allies. Once U.S. power has been invested with the capability to improve almost any situation, it seems unthinkable that the best thing the U.S. could do is to do no harm. The assumption is that “there must be something we can to help,” but that is frequently not true, or it is true only in very limited ways that hawks usually consider to be insufficient.

When virtually everything becomes our business and our responsibility, no one crisis can be effectively or competently managed because the U.S. is trying to do too many things, and it is often trying to do them in places that it understands poorly at best. That often means that the U.S. will be pulled into taking a major role in a crisis or conflict to which it has no good or even tolerably bad answers, and then it is stuck trying to resolve problems that it was never really prepared or willing to fix. Then the activists that insisted that the U.S. take action whine about how ad hoc the U.S. response is, as if it could be otherwise with all of the constant agitation for action in one country after another diverting resources and attention to yet another crisis. Part of the trouble here is that role assigned to “leader of the free world” today is arguably even more ambitious and expansive than the one that U.S. presidents were supposed to have when the Cold War was still going on. Unlike the Cold War, there is no good reason for our presidents to occupy this role. No remotely responsible president could fulfill the demands of the role that is imagined for him, and any president that tried would be derelict in his real duties to the United States.

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9 Comments To "The Misguided Longing for a “Leader of the Free World”"

#1 Comment By Last Full Measure On August 12, 2014 @ 12:58 am

“no one crisis can be effectively or competently managed because the U.S. is trying to do too many things, and it is often trying to do them in places that it understands poorly at best. “

This is the hard bottom line. We don’t have enough good, competent, committed people to play this game and we blew it. “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton”. I rest my case.

With a very few exceptions, our brightest bulbs tend not to work for the gummint, or to belong to the chattering class that has come to dominate policy making, or to be employed by the various blunt instruments with which our increasingly alienated government seeks to indulge its caprices. Incompetent dummies + scads of money and weapons = catastrophic failure, and failure’s what we got.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 12, 2014 @ 7:25 am

In my mind the most important aspect is the observation that more concentrated effort n fewer issues.

We are indispensable of in a way. We can tackle a lot of issues. It would be nice to trim dowm do less and do it more effectively.

One of the reasons we dole out so much money is to enable others to do what we cannot. Bit our oversight is seriously impaired and until it improves. It is clear that we might do less there as well.

#3 Comment By cole slaw On August 12, 2014 @ 8:43 am

There hasn’t been a “Leader of the Free World” since the elder Bush left office. None of his successors has had the requisite character or attainments.

#4 Comment By Colonel Bogey On August 12, 2014 @ 10:31 am

The back cover of one of the “Ladies’ Home Journal” issues from 1896–was it September?–shows an imaginary tete-a-tete between Queen Victoria and President McKinley, enjoying a cup of tea together. The caption of this advertisement by the tea industry describes them as “the rulers of the two greatest countries in the world”. I hadn’t been used to thinking of our President as a “ruler”, but constitutionally that is what he is, not some Duce-figure or “leader”. It was only after fascism became fashionable in the 1920s that we began to crave a “leader” a la Mussolini. Give me a constitutional ruler any day, and keep your silly “leaders”.

#5 Comment By Andrew On August 12, 2014 @ 12:14 pm


In my mind the most important aspect is the observation that more concentrated effort n fewer issues.

A mere redistribution (concentration) of the resources is not enough. Serious foreign policy operates as calculus (as in math), not as arithmetic.

#6 Comment By Luke Reimund On August 12, 2014 @ 1:48 pm

This poster says it all:

#7 Comment By Andrew On August 12, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

@Bill Jones

Did you know for example that you need a license to be an interior designer in Texas, of all places? I guess it’s to protect people from the unspeakable danger that they get Lavender drapes instead of Peach.

I laughed, hard. Great comment. On a more serious note–teaching licenses are one of the “best” methods to keep American high-school and part of college education on the path to oblivion, especially in the STEM field. Among my friends is the number of M.S. and Ph.D. engineers who would love to go to school and teach kids….but no–no license, no way.

#8 Comment By Ken Lovell On August 12, 2014 @ 8:31 pm

Leaders don’t appoint themselves; they become leaders because others elect to follow them. Since America joined the ranks of countries willing to engage in wars of aggression for inadequate reasons, and then proved comprehensively incompetent in their execution, it’s unlikely most of the “free world” (whatever that is these days) would be willing to follow any US president no matter who s/he was or what s/he did.

#9 Comment By rabblerouser On August 13, 2014 @ 10:36 am

Murray is just a neo con blowhard. In the UK, as in US such people are disproportionately represented in the commentariat (your David Frum has even joined the board of a neo con think tank Policy Exchange) with the honourable exception of the palaeo Daily Mail.