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In Defense of Leading from Behind

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
May 8, 2013
Foreign Policy


"Leading from behind," a quote from an unnamed Obama administration official highlighted byNew Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, has been vehemently and repeatedly trashed in the Washington scramble to redefine U.S. power in the 21st century, becoming fodder for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign and a rallying cry for neoconservatives. But the concept behind the phrase deserves another look. President Barack Obama seems to have come to the same conclusion and already is leading in a new way -- not from behind, but as a partner.

When it was coined in April 2011, the phrase rested on indisputable, if uncomfortable, emerging realities: Americans had soured on playing Lone Ranger to a hopelessly messy world. The price tag had grown outrageous, the results dubious. America's allies were demanding a bigger say in the policy menu, though they still expected Washington to pick up the check. Forget not that they pushed the White House into dethroning Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya and now scheme the same for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. And remember the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, where erstwhile friends ditched the United States to join China's disgraceful bid to undermine global climate change efforts -- though they didn't fail to slip the bill (and the blame) under the U.S. door.

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