Conservative critics of the White House may have turned the idea of "leading from behind" into a punch line as soon as it appeared as an anonymous quote from an administration advisor 9,000 words into a New Yorker article, but it is quickly becoming Barack Obama's most enduring foreign-policy legacy -- and not necessarily as the insult his rivals saw it. Certainly, Obama has led: Although he came to office promising to curtail America's military adventurism abroad and focus on nation-building at home, he has nevertheless presided over more dramatic political shifts in the Middle East than ever achieved by his pugnacious predecessor, even if they are the result of events that he was reacting to rather than driving himself.
As the Arab Spring remade the region in 2011, Obama adapted as both American values and interests demanded. When protests in Cairo reached a fever pitch, he cast aside the caution of his advisors and unambiguously told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a 30-year American ally, that it was time to go. And when Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi responded to an uprising by threatening to hunt down his rebellious subjects "home by home, alley by alley," the president joined a French- and British-led coalition that ousted the mercurial dictator, though only after securing clear regional support for the mission. It is hard to imagine Arab societies being focused so intently on internal politics -- or welcoming Western military intervention with open arms -- during the Age of Bush.
In Asia, the president has managed the difficult balancing act of reducing the U.S. military footprint, navigating the rise of China, and striking blow after blow against al Qaeda. He vowed to pull out of Iraq and established a timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan, a decade-long war that few Americans now see as worth the sacrifice, over the objections of his hawkish critics and even his own generals, while urging a long-overdue refocus on U.S. alliances in East Asia. And, of course, his gutsy call to order a risky commando raid deep inside Pakistan, which resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, may be the one decision that all Americans can agree was the right one.
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