Obama Foreign Policy: 'Leading from Behind'

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"Leading from behind" is a small part of Ryan Lizza's report on the evolution of President Obama's foreign policy in the wake of the Arab Spring, but it's already drawn a lot of attention in the hours since the story was posted on The New Yorker's website. Expect more. Obama, Lizza writes, is the first president to have come of age in the post-Cold War era, when American dominance has been met with resentment in much of the world, and consequently he thinks that highly visible American support for a particular policy can actually sour much of the world on it. "Leading from behind" is how one White House adviser describes the balance Obama is trying to strike between the goals of spreading American ideals avoiding insurgency quagmires. "That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention," Lizza writes, and, in a bit of an understatement, the adviser explains, "It's so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world." But, the adviser says, "it's necessary for shepherding us through this phase."

Lizza's piece offers several other interesting windows into the White House. On whether it really is boys vs. girls when it comes to the debate over humanitarian in the White House and State Department as Obama increasingly turned toward realism:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned her department into something of a haven for the [interventionist] ideas that flourished late in the Clinton Administration. ... Walking around the mazelike building in Foggy Bottom, you get the sense that if you duck into any office you will find earnest young women and men discussing globalization, the possibility that Facebook can topple tyrannies, and what is called "soft power," the ability to bend the world toward your view through attraction, not coercion. ...

One suggestion that came up in interviews with Obama’s current and former foreign-policy advisers was that the Administration’s policy debates sometimes broke down along gender lines. The realists who view foreign policy as a great chess game—and who want to focus on China and India—are usually men. The idealists, who talk about democracy and human rights, are often women. (White House officials told me that this critique is outlandish.)

On the way Clinton has figured out how to deal with the office sexual politics:

She has repeatedly aligned herself with the most consistent realist in the Obama Administration: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates... Clinton’s advisers told me that, during her first two years in Foggy Bottom, Clinton agreed with Gates on every major issue. ... 

“Madeleine Albright believed in the importance of those issues, but she could never have made it the core of her public agenda. She was the first woman Secretary of State, which meant that she had to out-tough the tough guys. She did that on the Balkans. Condi Rice helped double foreign aid, but she was first and foremost a Cold Warrior, and she could throw around ‘I.C.B.M.’s and ‘S.L.B.M.’s and ‘MIRV’s with the best of them. That was the only way she could make it, not only as a woman in the nineteen-eighties but as an African-American woman. You had to be way tougher and way more knowledgeable about weapons than any man.” A former Administration official said, “Hillary has to guard her flank. And one of the ways she guards her flank is she rarely deviates from Gates. If she and Gates both weigh in, they are much more likely to get their way.”

On near-firing of the state department staffer, Jared Cohen, who took the widely-heralded step of convincing Twitter to delay scheduled site maintenance so Iranian protesters could continue sharing information with the international press during post-election protests in 2009:

The move violated Obama’s rule of non-interference. White House officials “were so mad that somebody had actually ‘interfered’ in Iranian politics, because they were doing their damnedest to not interfere,” the former Administration official said. “Now, to be fair to them, it was also the understanding that if we interfered it could look like the Green movement was Western-backed, but that really wasn’t the core of it. The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters. To the Secretary’s credit, she realized, I think, before other people, that this is ridiculous, that we had to change our line.” The official said that Cohen “almost lost his job over it. If it had been up to the White House, they would have fired him.”

How the decision to send a surge of troops to Afghanistan was driven by bureaucratic politics:

Obama came into office emphasizing bureaucratic efficiency, which he believed would lead to wise rulings. But the Afghanistan decision, like all government work, was driven by politics and ideology. Obama’s eagerness to keep his campaign promise, the military’s view that reducing troops meant a loss of face, Clinton’s decision to align with Gates, and Holbrooke’s inability to influence the White House staff all ultimately conspired to push Obama toward the surge.

On behind-the-scenes negotiations between the White House and Egyptian officials as Hosni Mubarak's hold on power began to crumble, and the fear of Islamists among Egyptian elite:

Obama’s ultimate position, it seemed, was to talk like an idealist while acting like a realist.

This wasn’t an easy balance to maintain, and the first major problem arose when State Department officials learned that if Mubarak stepped down immediately, the Egyptian constitution would require a Presidential election in sixty days, long before any of the moderate parties could get organized. Egyptian officials warned the Administration that it could lead to the Muslim Brotherhood’s taking over power. “My daughter gets to go out at night,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s then foreign minister, told Secretary Clinton during one conversation. “And, God damn it, I’m not going to turn this country over to people who will turn back the clock on her rights.”

In Tahrir Square, the protesters erupted in rage at the meandering and confusing speech [by Mubarak when he unexpectedly did not step down]. Obama now seemed to be uncomfortable taking an attitude of cool detachment from the people in the street. He called Mubarak, and tried to find a graceful way for the Egyptian President to exit that would also take care of the constitutional concerns Egyptian officials kept raising. He asked Mubarak if there was a way to alter the constitution to allow for a stable transition. He asked if there was a way to set up a caretaker government. A White House official summarized Mubarak’s response as: “Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood, Muslim Brotherhood.”

On how Clinton's anti-war days shaped how she saw the young protesters in Cairo:

I asked why [leaders of a young protesters] weren’t upstairs with the Secretary of State. “Hillary was against the revolution from the beginning to the last day, O.K.?” Mohammed Abbas, of the Muslim Brotherhood, said. “Obama supported this revolution. She was against.” ...

Later, when I relayed these comments to Clinton, she told me she didn’t take the snub personally. She said, “Many years ago, I was active against the Vietnam War, and I was involved in all kinds of student politics, and so I understand there’s always a full range of people in movements like this. And I remember refusing to meet with people.” She was unmoved by the fact that these protesters had been integral to starting the revolution. “The people who start revolutions may or may not be the people who actually end up governing countries.”

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.