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Our Warped Understanding of ‘Leadership’ in Foreign Policy

Increased U.S. meddling in the Middle East is presented to the public as if it were a necessary and unavoidable course of action when it is neither.
syria plane rocket

The opening of this report of a Middle East in “freefall” seemed a bit odd:

After a presidential campaign dominated by reality-show-style insults and put-downs, the winner of next month’s American election will wake up the following morning to find a far more daunting reality waiting: a Middle East awash in conflict and disarray, desperate for American leadership [bold mine-DL].

The article reminds us why we need to reconsider what we mean when we talk about “leadership” in our foreign policy debates. Daniel Davis wrote about that for TAC last week:

Unfortunately, along with the narrow band of foreign-policy choices has come the distortion of the term “leadership.” In the lexicon of Washington’s foreign-policy establishment, leadership has come to mean “applying lethal military power as a policy option of first choice to solve complicated international challenges.” John Maxwell, number one on Inc. magazine’s “Top 50 Leadership and Management Experts” list, provides a more accurate definition of leadership: “Real leadership is being the person others will gladly and confidently follow.”

The interests of the United States can best be protected and advanced when we are implementing the Maxwell definition of leadership rather than the current Washington version, which has led to strategic failures for more than two decades.

As we can see from the Times article, that distorted version of “leadership” is accepted and taken as a given even in news reports. There certainly are significant conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, but it’s not obviously true that the people in the region are “desperate for American leadership.” There are some governments that would very much like the U.S. do more fighting for them in one or more of these conflicts, but I doubt the people in the countries that have been affected by previous or ongoing episodes of “leadership” over the last fifteen years are craving more of it. Is Yemen desperate for American “leadership”? No, they are desperate for food and medicine and for an end to the bombing campaign that the U.S. supports. The best thing the U.S. could do for Yemenis now is to stop “reassuring” the governments that are killing them. How well has Iraq been served by being on the receiving end of a quarter-century of our “leading”? The question answers itself. There are definitely many people in Washington that believe that the region is “desperate for American leadership” and they are eager to provide it in the form of escalating wars, but then they always are. Given the numerous costly failures of the policies supported by such people in just the last twenty years, the real question ought to be: why should their preferences for more “leadership” (i.e., meddling and warfare) be treated as anything other than prelude to disaster?

The framing of the article treats it as a given that disorder somewhere in the world obliges the U.S. to put an end to it, and makes it seem as if interfering extensively in the affairs of nations on the other side of the planet is an unremarkable, obvious part of being president. It’s true that some in the region are “hoping for a stronger hand from Washington” because they want to get the U.S. more deeply ensnared in the ongoing conflicts, but instead of presenting this as something that the next president should resist the article makes it seem as if these preferences need to be catered to. The dubious “middle ground” rhetoric about U.S. foreign policy pops up, too:

“The most important challenge for the new president is to figure out what he wants in this region and restore American credibility,” said Efraim Inbar, the founding director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv. “What the region sees now is American weakness.”

That should not necessarily mean an expansive American military presence, Mr. Inbar added. Indeed, there is little appetite in the region for a return to the more interventionist policies of President George W. Bush. But if Mr. Bush was judged to be too assertive, many here consider Mr. Obama too restrained, and hope to see some middle ground [bold mine-DL].

The U.S. is fighting or supporting at least two wars in the region in four different countries, so if “many” in the region believe Obama has been too restrained it is also fair to conclude that “many” don’t know what restraint is. The real problem that a lot of the nameless “many” have with Obama is that he hasn’t committed the U.S. deeply enough to the wars they want us to fight for them, but the fact that they want this is hardly a good reason for the next president to try to satisfy them. The idea that the U.S. needs to find a “middle ground” between the costly debacles of the Bush years and the constant warfare of the Obama years is a bizarre and dangerous one, since the so-called “middle ground” implies that the U.S. needs to kill more people in that part of the world and put more U.S. soldiers at risk. Stripped of euphemisms about “leadership” and the “middle ground,” that is what we’re talking about here.

Various scholars and officials are cited later in the article to tell us that the next president “must figure out a new regional arrangement that takes into account all of the main actors and their interests, including Iran and Turkey” and must also “restore relations with allies and…concentrate on deterring Iran.” It’s not clear why the next president must do this, except that the people being quoted think they should, and it’s even less clear what any of this has to do with securing U.S. interests. The “allies” in question for the most part aren’t even treaty allies, so the U.S. doesn’t have to do anything for them. Increased U.S. meddling in the region is presented throughout as if it were a necessary and unavoidable course of action when it is neither. If the next president increases U.S. involvement in the region’s wars (and we have every reason to expect that Clinton will do this if she wins), that will be a bad choice that much of the foreign policy establishment has been actively demanding for the last several years. It won’t happen because the people of the region are demanding it (and I suspect most of the people there don’t want it to happen), but because our policymakers and politicians are obsessed with a warped understanding of U.S. “leadership” and insist on “leading” by getting the U.S. into one war after another.



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