A few months back, The New Yorker attempted to set out a synthesis explaining the President’s foreign policy strategy, as applied to Libya, the “Arab Spring,” and beyond. They concluded that the administration was attempting to “lead from behind” — which David Remnick corrects to “leading from behind the scenes” — by pushing for American interests without leaving American fingerprints on the matter. Notably, this strategy doesn’t spring from a lack of belief in American ideals, or even a hesitancy to apply direct power when needed. It follows from an acknowledgment that some sectors of the world may bristle at American involvement, even while embracing American values. So we act indirectly. Like Bender’s God (YouTube), “when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
This is good strategy — if it’s strategy at all — but it’s one for which we remain rhetorically unprepared. For the left’s part, we’re too ashamed of fighting this new war in the first place to take pride in the fact that it’s being done well. And for the right, any intervention conducted without military fanfare, celebrations on carrier hanger decks, and premature proclamations of victory approximates a betrayal “American exceptionalism,” a surrender to a post-American age, or a decision to vacate the world stage.
Let’s stop and recognize what’s being done, and why. The “war on terror” brings us into conflict with a sector of the world where, for whatever reason, we find ourselves less able to effect real change than we have been in previous conflicts. This phenomenon needn’t be explained by reference to overwrought hand-wringing and existential doubt about “American decline” — it’s just a different challenge, and one that can’t be addressed by the talents we’ve developed in waging (and winning) prior wars. We cannot, for example, rely on European allies to provide bases, intelligence, and support — and we’ve simply never tried to create an ally, much less from such foreign materials.
Considering the circumstances, we shouldn’t be ashamed of approaching a new problem with a new solution. The invention here is realizing that “American exceptionalism” — the American concept — isn’t a means, and so has nothing to do with warfare. It’s an end, and has everything to do with trading authoritarianism for self-determination. This strategy of “leading from behind the scenes,” and with modesty where the situation demands it, is leadership still, and a triumphant vindication of American exceptionalism from a President who cares more about results than swagger. It’s about time.