Voice

The L Word

In Washington, "leadership" is the disease, not the cure.

Over the past few months, the Beltway's foreign policy community has offered two broad observations in op-eds and essays on America's role in the world. The first -- repeatedly covered in this column -- is that the world is one of increasing complexity, instability, and general dystopia. In a twist to his repeated assertion that the world has never been more dangerous, on March 22, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that "the world is more dangerous, because more people can do us harm." (This implies the world can only become ever more perilous since global population is projected to grow by one billion people over the next dozen years; presumably the Pentagon's Strategic Choices and Management Review will include expanding access to birth control as a key priority.)

The second observation is that we are now suffering a "world on fire" -- as Senator Lindsey Graham described it in February -- primarily because the United States has allowed it to deteriorate. More specifically, President Barack Obama, through his personal inclination or inattention, has let a "vacuum" emerge outside of America's borders, which -- like the earthly portal that brings forth the ancient Sumerian god of destruction, Gozer, at the end of Ghostbusters -- has been filled with mayhem, evil, and darkness. As political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote two weeks ago: "A world in which the U.S. abnegates its leadership will be a world of unrestricted self-help in which China sets the rules of politics and trade in Asia, mayhem and chaos is the order of the day in the Middle East, and timidity and appeasement paralyze the free European states." 

The proposed solution for a world that has become more dangerous only because the American president allowed it? "Leadership" -- the alleged absence of which is based on the observation of the anonymous Obama adviser who famously told The New Yorker that the administration's approach to Libya was one of "leading from behind." Ever since, whenever a policymaker or pundit observes any foreign policy that they object to, they charge the White House with exercising insufficient leadership. The next time you read some pundit demanding more leadership abroad, there are several assumptions worth bearing in mind.

First, those who oppose current U.S. foreign policies are always the ones appealing for more leadership, though they rarely provide details about what should be done differently. There are no new strategic objectives, courses of action, or actionable policy recommendations that could plausibly achieve the desired outcome. Developing realistic policy alternatives is difficult and involves making judgments about what trade-offs to make and what risks to accept. But telling the president to simply "do more" is a lazy and completely safe charge, since it requires nothing from the accuser other than to repeatedly highlight that they haven't gotten their way because of presidential inaction.

Second, leadership appeals also assume a wholly unrealistic presidential capability to compel U.S. allies and friends to adopt previously rejected policies. The world is, to quote the title of a recent Daniel Henninger op-ed, "Looking for Leadership" in Syria, North Korea, Iran, and Cyprus -- "All these matters have been treated so far with degrees of U.S. diffidence." The unstated belief here is that just a few more presidential phone calls or country visits would catalyze all the relevant stakeholders to selflessly and suddenly act in a coordinated manner to resolve persistent foreign policy challenges. Moreover, since these challenges have occurred only because of the willful neglect of the Oval Office, it is President Obama's personal obligation to correct them.

Third, leadership appeals are often thinly veiled demands that the president authorize the use of military force. As Richard Cohen has argued in the Washington Post as to why the president should intervene in Syria's civil war: "Without U.S. leadership, nothing happens. Our allies are incapable of leading because (1) they do not have the military wherewithal, and (2) they have forgotten how." What the armed opposition in Syria, and allies who claim to support some sort of intervention, actually want is not Obama's leadership, but the heavy weapons supplied by the CIA and the combat aircraft and cruise missiles that can only be delivered by the Pentagon. They want America's unmatched capacity to destroy things and kill people to assure that Assad will fall. They don't seek nor need America's guidance to achieve it, just America's might. Of course, opposition groups request U.S. military intervention all the time, but since those demands go largely unreported, pundits rarely cry "leadership" for those conflicts.

Fourth, there is an assumption that only the American president is obliged to show the leadership required to solve collective action problems unfolding thousands of miles away. As Jackson Diehl wrote on Monday, "Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership." No pundit ever demands that those neighboring and nearby states -- possessing vast military arsenals that could easily topple Assad, at somewhat greater risk than a U.S.-led intervention -- show their own leadership. They are unanimous in their call for someone else to intervene (meaning the United States) to end the civil war, and pundits are soon convinced that this is the responsibility of Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, those same pundits never request that emerging powers in New Delhi, Brasilia, or Pretoria do anything regarding some foreign conflict. In Washington, America is forever the indispensable and manipulable nation.

Finally, many demanding greater leadership from President Obama are conditioned to believe that "leadership" is always the answer. The field of "leadership studies" and its supposed lessons are constantly jammed down the throats of graduate students at public policy, business, and law schools. In my five years in various low-level research positions at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, the message I saw constantly transmitted to students was that they were being formed into an elite cadre with the skills and temperament that would allow them to lead others to solve social and political problems wherever they emerged.

Retired politicians, generals, and business executives reinforce this perspective. They cannot simply write memoirs of their professional experiences; instead, they must instead spin vignettes into bite-size "leadership lessons" that are packaged into paid speaking gigs and books -- type "leadership books" into the Amazon search engine you get 86,451 results. These sell tremendously well since it is appealing to imagine that inside of us all is a mini-Churchill -- currently constrained by bureaucratic forces or dismal personalities -- just waiting for the opportunity to assume control of our own destiny and to compel others to follow. It is no wonder that "leadership" has become the end-all-be-all solution to foreign policy problems.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

This Is Not the Drone Debate We're Looking For

How Rand Paul and company are totally missing the point.

After 10 years of disinterest from policymakers and pundits, and one year of carefully-managed official statements from the Obama administration, there is finally an active debate on the U.S. policy of non-battlefield targeted killings via drones. Suddenly, everyone feels compelled to offer their opinion on drone strikes on political talk shows and in op-eds and congressional hearings. There is just one problem: Little of the public debate discusses the actual conduct of targeted killings, and focuses instead on hypothetical operations. As a result, there is even greater misinformation that distorts, muddies, and distracts from the real issues.

During his 13-hour filibuster, Senator Rand Paul repeatedly asked if President Obama believed he had the constitutional authority to target U.S. citizens within the United States. He specifically mentioned the hypothetical scenario in which Jane Fonda, Kent State protestors, or someone in a café (mentioned 34 times!) could be targeted under the Obama administration's legal framework. While Paul raised several important questions about targeted killings, his focus on such implausible examples obscured the full scope of the drone wars. Of the 3,500 to 4,700 victims, only four were U.S. citizens -- and only one was targeted intentionally. In short, the longest congressional discussion held on targeted killings concentrated on one one-thousandth of the issue.

The following day, John McCain took to the Senate floor to denounce Paul and defend targeted killings in case of contingencies like "Nazis who came ashore on Long Island in World War II" or a "bomb-laden, explosive-laden vehicle headed for a nuclear power plant." These justifications echoed those of Attorney General Eric Holder, who declared domestic drone strikes were reserved for "circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001." According to the 9/11 Commission, at around 10:15 a.m. on the morning of September 11, Vice President Dick Cheney told his military aide that Air Force F-16s were authorized to shoot down a civilian airliner (United 93) heading toward Washington, D.C. if the fighter pilots could confirm that it had been hijacked. Since nobody actually contends that the president cannot use force in such an instance, these arguments are emotionally-laden red herrings.

Meanwhile, human rights groups, legal scholars, and columnists are increasingly warning about the prospect of fully autonomous robots, which could conduct lethal strikes without a human being in the decision-making loop. While the U.S. military has long maintained autonomous defensive systems that launch counterbattery fire to suppress artillery and rocket attacks, Pentagon officials have repeatedly stated that there are no plans to develop fully autonomous drones for targeted killing operations. Although there should be clear limits on what decisions are made by robotic sensors and algorithms, this is not an imminent capability that presidents will possess, nor is it a practical near-term concern. Moreover, it is unrelated to the weapons platforms that have been used by the Bush and Obama administrations 420 times and counting.  

Finally, drone defenders stick to the official line of who can be attacked: senior operational leaders of al Qaeda and associates who pose a grave and imminent threat to the United States. This has not been true for almost five years, though the assertion continues to be recycled and widely accepted by policymakers and pundits. In fact, the vast majority of individuals killed by drones were anonymous militants who allegedly threatened coalition forces in Afghanistan or the domestic security forces in Pakistan. According to the New America Foundation, of the estimated 2,426 to 3,969 people killed by CIA drones in Pakistan, only 51 -- or roughly 2 percent -- were reported as "militant leaders."

The reality of U.S. targeted killings is more complex than the unlikely or hypothetical scenarios offered in the past few weeks. For example, there has not been a U.S. targeted killing in Somalia in almost 14 months, since the al Qaeda-affiliated organization al-Shabab was weakened by African Union, Kenyan, and Ethiopian troops deployed throughout the country. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, stated last week that al-Shabab was "significantly weakened in the past year," while James Clapper, the director national intelligence, described it as "largely in retreat." That this relative good news has occurred without the assistance of U.S. cruise missiles or special operations raids holds lessons for confronting extremist militants elsewhere.

At the same time, the CIA's drone strikes in Pakistan have declined from a zenith of 122 in 2010, to 48 in 2012, to 6 so far in 2013. Since 2008, these strikes have primarily focused on suspected militants who threaten U.S. servicemembers with improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, and small-arms fire across the border in Afghanistan. As additional U.S. troops withdraw, drone strikes that are intended to protect them should also become increasingly rare. Moreover, if Afghanistan exercises its sovereign right to prohibit the United States from using its territory for external military operations -- once a possibility, now increasingly likely -- then the laws of geography and logistics make drone strikes into Pakistan basically impossible. This also assumes that Pakistani officials remain unable to fulfill their repeated pledge of ending U.S. drone strikes -- a pledge first made in January 2006, or 341 strikes ago.

Finally, the number of targeted killings in Yemen against suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and militants fighting an insurgency against the security forces of the regime of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, went from 10 in 2011, to 42 in 2012, to 5 so far in 2013. These are difficult to assess, since reportedly some strikes are conducted by Yemeni and Saudi air forces, and others by the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command. The Yemeni government has also claimed responsibility for some U.S. strikes that caused civilian casualties in order to shield the United States from criticism and accountability. Based on conversations with Obama administration officials, whether the current strategy in Yemen is "working" to reduce the threat posed by externally-directed terrorism is one of the most hotly debated questions of U.S. foreign policy.

The overdue public and congressional debates about the Obama administration's targeted killings should be based on how those operations are actually justified and conducted, which is itself based on inconsistencies and unexamined assumptions that deserve close scrutiny. A debate that focuses on drone strikes that have not occurred, that are highly improbable, or that would be conducted with capabilities that do not exist, might get public attention, but it misses the real story.

John Moore/Getty Images