The International Herald Tribune and New York Times online

By Tom Switzer

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — Whether it was worth doing in the first place is debatable and how it will end remains to be seen. But it looks as if the Obama administration is scoring a victory in Libya. A brutal tyrant has been overthrown; the heavy use of air power, including drones, was highly effective; a broad, international coalition remained united; and there was no loss of American lives. Perhaps “leading from behind” is not an oxymoron after all.

Those words were uttered by an unnamed adviser to President Obama in April to describe Washington’s cautious, back-seat approach to Libya. According to Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker, the term represents “a different definition of leadership than America is known for,” and it reflects the reality that the United States lacks the power to impose its will and leadership across a more plural world.

The response was hostile. It “sounds rather pathetic” (Maureen Dowd). It “just doesn’t work in today’s world” (David Ignatius). It’s “not leading. It is abdicating” (Charles Krauthammer). And the phrase, editorialized the Washington Post, merely reflects “extraordinary U.S. passivity” and a “pattern of torpidity” during the Arab Spring.

But the argument is less foolish than the reaction it provoked. The Obama adviser’s message is surely not that passivity is a foreign policy virtue. Rather, it is that, depending on the circumstances and the nature of U.S. interests, it is appropriate for Washington to pursue a more multilateral foreign policy.

That is a defensible, even sensible world view. After all, it makes no sense to make policy in terms of sweeping doctrines that purport to lay down general, binding principles and rules of conduct that must be followed consistently, across the board. In other words, discrimination and selectivity should take precedence over consistency and comprehensiveness.

One of the disconcerting things about Obama’s more interventionist critics is that they seem to favor an American global leadership role generally and on principle, rather than as a drastic course to be turned to only when truly vital interests are at stake and other measures have failed.

For their part, many of Obama’s Republican presidential rivals argue that the level of global involvement and commitment should now be reduced drastically and rapidly. The Libyan commitment, these critics argue, never met the stringent test of national interest. Echoing George McGovern in 1972, Ron Paul has declared repeatedly on the campaign trail: “Come home, America.”

But the real argument, as Obama recognizes, takes place in that broad territory that lies behind the extremes of withdrawal and gung-ho crusading. Sometimes Washington will need to take the lead in mobilizing multilateral action. But a policy of U.S. global leadership is not sustainable — even if the necessary economic resources for such a policy are available, which they are not.

To assert that the U.S. must lead globally is to assert that everybody else must follow. That is a subordinate relationship that is alien to America’s basic values, which represent freedom and egalitarianism. As the Libyan episode has shown, the United States should be concerned about spreading responsibility and initiative across the world, to seek co-operative, not subordinate relationships.

Meanwhile, anything resembling an intrusive and heavy-handed foreign policy requires a strong federal government with sweeping powers. The lesson of last summer’s brush with debt default is that Washington will need to assign very high priority to downsizing government and cutting spending. An ambitious and interventionist foreign policy is incompatible with that goal.

The point here is an old one, variously ascribed to Burke, De Gaulle or Kissinger, about global hegemons using their vast power with prudence and discrimination. And it is fully relevant to U.S. foreign policy today.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, America has been badly damaged in terms of blood and treasure as well as credibility and prestige. It is crippled by a $14 trillion-plus debt and stubbornly high unemployment. And it is suffering from a crisis of confidence at home and abroad.

To the extent that U.S. leadership remains a rallying cry, it is about achieving specific goals and exit strategies, not ambitious, open-ended foreign policy projects. However controversial the language, the message of “leading from behind” might not be so unappealing if it helps encourage a sense of limits at a time when the American people are neither willing nor able to pay for a new American Century.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.