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Cut Back on Bad Policy or Quit Altogether?

In a recent New Yorker article, an anonymous Obama White House aide suggested that the administration had been trying to lead from behind on issues such as the overthrow of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi or the Egyptian and Tunisian revolts. Yet even some liberal interventionists have suggested that though this approach is fine for less important issues or those in which American leverage is inherently circumscribed, this is no way for a superpower to lead. In addition, those pundits have opined that such an approach is bad politics because it would open the president to derision as a wimp. What the liberal interventionists are afraid of is that the neoconservative interventionists will attack Obama for just that.

All of these pundits thus advocate maintaining this increasingly activist post-World War II foreign policy even in the ominous shadow of yawning budget deficits, a monstrous national debt of more than $14 trillion, and national financial ruin. The large debt could drag the U.S. economy, much as it has the debt-plagued (by overstimulation and heavy government involvement) Japanese economy for a seeming eternity. The root of all military, political, diplomatic, and cultural power is economic health and prosperity. Yet an expansive U.S. foreign policy is contributing to overextension and economic decline.

More important, U.S. interventionism in foreign affairs is often justified by high-testosterone proclamations that the exceptional United States must lead the world, usually by attacking or invading weak countries that are misbehaving. If the United States fails to get involved militarily in a crisis in the developing world or takes a backseat role, as in the crises previously mentioned, the interventionists start playing the “wimp” card.

After disastrous and prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and a longer than expected war to depose the already weakened Gadhafi, the war-weary public is less likely to buy this overheated rhetoric. The public should realize—as it seems to be—that when the “need for American leadership” is hyped, a hand should be kept on the collective wallet so that it is not lifted.

Even if economic times were not tough, the public should ask why the U.S. needs to solve every problem in the world. The debate needs to be reframed away from the macho “leadership” rhetoric, which touts offensive or preventive actions, to a threat-based national security rationale, which extols true defense and derides military nannyism or social work. After the Cold War ended and Osama bin Laden was killed and al-Qaeda was severely degraded, few genuine threats to U.S. security remained. So pulling back the unneeded American empire by ending costly alliances and reducing the number of overseas bases and armed interventions would save money and American lives—both overseas and at home from terrorist blowback.

Therefore, adopting a national strategy of leading from behind is like limiting cigarette smoking to half a pack a day when the best response is to quit altogether.

Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office.

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