Forget "leading from behind." Obama's Middle East strategy is closer to "pleading from behind." 

Leslie Gelb is certainly right that the Obama administration's strategy of "leading from behind" was "ill-named and ill-explained" ("The Right Play," May/June 2013). But it was hardly a botched product launch. Rather, it was a game attempt to explain away a demonstrable failure of leadership as Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's troops closed in on the Benghazi rebels in March 2011. For more than a month after peaceful demonstrations had begun in Tripoli, the U.S. president dithered. When Libya's rebels, who had been on the offensive at the outset, found themselves cornered and about to be overrun, an unnamed White House official used the phrase "leading from behind" to explain what was a belated decision to support and enable a British- and French-led intervention.

Gelb rightly calls this misguided Libya "strategy" a "fiasco," which he is eager to distinguish from what he thinks is the "right" strategy for Syria. He brushes aside, however, the striking similarities between the administration's approach to Libya and its "strategy" for Syria -- both of which are appropriately described as "leading from behind" and both of which are dangerously flawed.

In the Libyan case, the United States waited long enough to diminish greatly its influence on the outcome but not long enough to avoid getting drawn into a conflict the administration had hoped to avoid altogether. Now we face a tumultuous Libya where it is unlikely that forces friendly to the United States will emerge as leaders -- and Americans are dead at the hands of those the United States empowered as it led from behind.

The Syrian case is even worse. Here the dithering continues after more than two years of unabated chaos. During this time, the vacuum the United States chose to observe has been filled -- as vacuums tend to be -- with the very jihadists Gelb thinks his "strategy" should stop. Two years ago, America could have exerted serious influence on the opponents of Bashar al-Assad's regime, choosing whom to assist and whom to sideline. When Assad's opponents needed help, Barack Obama's administration stayed out of the game, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others took the lead in shaping the opposition that is now emerging. And though no one can be certain that an opposition supporting America's values and interests would have resulted from early U.S. support, we can be sure that an opposition shaped by Wahhabi zealots from Saudi Arabia won't.

If "leading from behind" describes the Obama administration's strategy in Syria and Libya, "pleading from behind" best sums up the White House's policy toward Iran, which may be far more consequential. Through its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize the Middle East, Iran has over several decades inflicted great damage on the United States, all while relentlessly advancing toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of all the policies the Obama administration has gotten or will get wrong, this is the most important. And like the others, it continues to be marked by interminable dithering to be followed almost certainly by the too little too late that the United States has trained its allies and adversaries to expect.

Fellow, American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

Leslie Gelb replies:

It's always a pleasure to contend with Richard Perle because of his genius in making admittedly bad situations worse. When his policy proposals are clear, they invariably point to threats of force and use of force. More typically, however, he uses insinuation to suggest some magical solution or weakness in his targets.

Take Libya, where he blames U.S. President Barack Obama for doing too little too late and for not following through after Muammar al-Qaddafi's fall. Is Perle's point that the United States should have taken military action unilaterally, thus preempting and excusing military responsibilities by Arab friends and European allies? On the contrary, Obama's "leading from behind" caused others to assume responsibilities they otherwise would have dodged. As for Perle's jab at the president for lack of follow-through, what would Perle have done? Perhaps dispatched ground troops to "pacify" the country? But he offers us only insinuation and silence.

When it comes to Syria, it is by no means clear, as Perle suggests, that America's ability to distinguish good from bad rebels would have been any easier two years ago than today. And what if the United States had armed them earlier and that failed? Would Perle want U.S. air attacks? And if that failed, U.S. boots on the ground? Only silence and insinuation again.

Regarding Iran, Perle blames Obama for allowing the mullahs to virtually dominate the region. He seems to forget that the Iraq war he championed destroyed the only counterbalance to Iran in the region, leaving Tehran in a dominant position in the Middle East. Although Perle's letter is silent on what to do now regarding Iran, we know what he wants -- a massive U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear complex. And then what, Richard?


Hold That Prize!

Walmart might be saving millions of people money, but it still doesn't pay its employees a living wage. 

Charles Kenny is entirely right that over the last few years the technological and organizational innovations pioneered by Walmart have lowered the cost of groceries and consumer goods for millions of people ("Give Sam Walton the Nobel Prize," May/June 2013). As the company put it in a 2009 television spot, "Walmart saves the average [American] family about $3,100 a year, no matter where they shop." But are these innovations sufficient, as the headline on Kenny's article suggested, for Sam Walton, the company's founder, to deserve a Nobel Prize?

According to a study by economic research firm IHS Global Insight, over the last quarter-century, Walmart's major competitors have adopted and adapted virtually all the cost-saving innovations pioneered by the Arkansas-based retailer. Like the automobile assembly line in the early 20th century and containerized transport in the 1970s and '80s, a sociotechnical breakthrough has become the property not of its originating corporation alone but of an entire industry.

So the real question isn't who gets credit for such enhanced productivity but who reaps the benefits. By 1923, the cost of a Ford automobile was less than $300, enabling blue-collar factory workers to buy the cars. But that was hardly enough to satisfy their aspirations. Henry Ford understood this, which is why he boosted wages to $5 a day in 1914, double the going rate. New Deal-era social policy ratified and codified this high-wage program, which again doubled blue-collar wages during the 20th century's middle decades. But this history has not been repeated in retail or in the supply chains that today make goods and move them from factory to store. Retail wages have been stagnant in the United States for more than a generation. And although inexpensive merchandise can nudge upward a poor family's standard of living, whether in the United States or elsewhere, there is no substitute for the higher wages that enable the purchase of housing, health care, education, and retirement security. Even the most efficient big-box store can't stock these things.

In the factories that feed the global supply chains controlled by Walmart and other large retailers, working conditions and wages remain pathologically inadequate. Major corporations pit factories and countries against one another, putting downward price pressure on factory owners and workers alike. If strikes, demonstrations, and government reforms push wages higher in southern China -- as they have recently -- the big retailers simply shift their sourcing to Vietnam, Bangladesh, or some other country where the working class is more quiescent and the government less vigilant. The recent catastrophic factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh are but one ugly manifestation of this dynamic.

History demonstrates that cheap goods can coexist with high wages, efficient technologies, and an empowered working class. Before the heirs of Sam Walton claim any prize for the founder, they need to share with workers, taxpayers, and consumers the profits that leapt forward when Walton married information-era technology to rural Southern wages and late 20th-century global production possibilities. If they don't do it voluntarily, we should make them.

Director, Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy
University of California/Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, Calif.

Charles Kenny replies:

Like Nelson Lichtenstein, I'd like to see more Americans in better, higher-paying jobs. And I'm all in favor of a corporate tax system that isn't riddled with loopholes and actually collects taxes from profitable firms. But even with the current tax code, it isn't just the Walton family that reaps the benefits of enhanced productivity. As Lichtenstein notes, the average American family is as much as $3,100 better off thanks to the sociotechnical breakthroughs pioneered by Walmart.

With regard to conditions in the factories that supply U.S. retailers, the tragic deaths in Bangladesh were easily preventable. American corporations that source from developing countries ought to do much more to ensure that the factories that make their goods comply with health and safety regulations. But research by political scientist Layna Mosley and others suggests that trade is a force for improved labor standards in the developing world. Firms, including Walmart, already pressure their suppliers to improve conditions. I too would like to see more Bangladeshis in better, higher-paying jobs. But, sad as it is to say, relative to the alternatives, working for $38 a month in a factory producing clothes for export qualifies as just that.