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.