May 25th, 2019


Leading from behind --- way behind

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published August 11, 2014

Leading from behind --- way behind Weak Spot by Petar Pismestrovic, Kleine Zeitung, Austria
Only now, after the latest offshoot of al-Qaida has emerged out of the desert in fanatical strength, cut through whatever is left of the Iraqi "army," and allowed to advance in all directions, has the supposed commander in chief of this country's armed forces been heard from. Vaguely.

In the meantime this Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, or whatever its latest appellation, has seized strategic cities and dams and generally sown devastation and persecution in its wake. Now it laps at Irbil, the Kurds' capital and site of what may be the last American garrison in the former Iraq.

It has taken what seems forever for our president to announce that he's authorized an air drop to get food and water to fleeing refugees stranded on a barren mountainside somewhere in no-man's land. He's even authorized an air strike or two.

The president says he's going to resort to force only if necessary to defend the few Americans left behind in northern Iraq. The same way he defended that little American outpost in Benghazi, Libya? And assured that it would be wiped out in a bloody attack that took the lives of some of our best and bravest.

Our Lady of Benghazi, The Hon. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is still trying to explain that disaster on her watch as secretary of state -- or just dodging questions about it. ("What difference, at this point, does it make?")

This is called leading from behind -- way behind. The result in Libya was to leave that country in the chaos that still engulfs it. Now the same fate awaits our Kurdish friends in their part of what used to be Iraq. Even while the president of the United States continues to drift and dawdle and call it a foreign policy. "As commander-in-chief," he announced Thursday night, "I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq."

The Hon. Barack Obama might as well have sent an engraved invitation to this ISIS/ISIL bunch and every other aggressor from Damascus to Moscow:

"The President of the United States requests the pleasure of your company in whatever part of the world you choose to overrun next. But we'd appreciate it if you steered clear of Americans this time or we'll have to fire a few rounds in the air. Or drop a bomb or two. If only for appearances' sake. Nothing personal, you understand, just for ceremonial purposes. But feel free to wreak whatever havoc you like on our old friends and allies in your neighborhood. They're expendable."

Which is a sure way not to avoid war but invite it.

It's all part of a long-established pattern, even an American tradition, that dates back at least to the War of 1812, when James Madison and associated masterminds bumbled into a war they set out to avoid by adopting a policy that proved too clever by half, maybe by three-quarters. They were going to play the British and French empires against each other, and so keep America out of the war. Instead the British and French played us, and the war came ... to no clear conclusion.

How little we have learned since. Now our not-so-stalwart leader, innocent of history, backs away from America's friends all over the world, substituting words for action as the country's foreign policy drifts aimlessly. At this point it's less a policy than a series of ad-hoc responses to the Crisis of the Day, and where it's headed nobody knows. At the moment American foreign policy seems to be drifting aimlessly on the relentless river called History, and if you listen carefully, you can hear the roaring of the cataract waiting downstream.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.