The limits of ‘leadership’

THE LIMITS OF ‘LEADERSHIP’…. For Republicans who’ve been clamoring for a military confrontation with Libya, the new challenge is coming up with a rationale for why they’re still not happy.

With that in mind, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) went on quite a little tirade on “Fox News Sunday” yesterday, complaining that President is acting as if “leading the free world is an inconvenience.”

For the White House, one of the key points of emphasis is that the United States is only the “leading edge” of the coalition’s effort, and the U.S. will gladly scale back its role quickly. For Graham, that’s not good news at all — the U.S., the senator argued, must take “a leadership role,” not a “back seat.” Indeed, as far as Graham is concerned, Obama’s limited mission is itself a problem, since the senator wants to the U.S. to “replace a tyrannical leader.”

Adam Serwer’s take on this struck me as just right.

Most of the arguments for why the U.S. should be seen as “taking the lead” seem to hinge on little more than the fact that so doing would be emotionally satisfying to those who have been agitating for intervention in Libya since hostilities began. Ross Douthat, for instance, argues that the U.S. multilateral approach facilitates a “caution that shades into tactical incompetence.” Since the U.S. is still extricating itself President George W. Bush’s unilateral invasion of Iraq which didn’t exactly amount to “tactical competence,” this is less than persuasive.

There are several reasons why the U.S. shouldn’t be seen as taking the lead. For one thing, the U.S. is already occupied with the aftermath of one war in Iraq and attempting to bring a more than decade-long operation in Afghanistan to its conclusion. The U.S. does not have unlimited military resources, and other countries that demanded intervention should take responsibility and offer contributions rather than free-riding off of the United States. The statements from the Arab League — which asked for intervention but then wavered when operations started — suggest that there really is a short shelf-life for the legitimacy for this operation in the Arab world, even though intervention initially had global support. If the operation goes badly, or takes far longer than advertised, it’s frankly in the U.S. interest not to be seen as having led the attack on a third Muslim country.

For Graham and those who share his ideology, having the U.S. military “take the lead” is necessarily good, regardless of the costs or burdens, because “taking the lead” is good. Leaving heavy lifting to allies, who aren’t overstretched with two other wars, is bad, because, well, it just is.

That’s not a foreign policy, it’s a chest-thumping bumper sticker.