What We Talk About When We Talk About Leadership

Why is President Obama afraid to talk about the real levers of American exceptionalism?

What started as a partisan attack line has turned into a full-fledged national lament: America under Obama is in retreat, having lost its willingness to lead and its appetite to do great things. The "international order" is coming apart as a result. The Russians dismantle Ukraine, the Chinese send drill rigs into disputed waters, the North Koreans flout nuclear norms, and the Syrians ignore American redlines -- and all the president of the United States can do is complain to reporters that no one understands him while his constituents tell pollsters they're sick of having to care.

The only antidote to this weakness, the lament goes, is a demonstration of might. The only way to reverse our retreat is to assert our power. And unless we do, the international order -- one built out of the wreckage of World War II and then sustained through victory in the Cold War, one that kept Americans secure at home even as it spread freedom and prosperity abroad -- has little hope of survival.

At West Point on Wednesday, in his biggest speech on foreign policy in a year, President Obama attempted to silence this lament. He rejected its pernicious opposition: intervention or retreat, assertions of power abroad or withdrawal behind our borders at home. (When the question is put to them in those terms, most Americans today -- weary and wary of intervention -- choose Option B.) But while he pointed out that we must "strengthen and enforce international order," he did too little to emphasize what many of his detractors ignore. For Obama, six years into his presidency, much more essential than reiterating criticisms of his predecessor is condemning his current critics for what they're missing: By neglecting, and often opposing, the most powerful steps the administration could take to renew the international order, they offer a vision of American leadership that is disastrously distorted.

If the question is not just whether to lead, but how, the starting point must be building on what we've done well in the past -- what makes the international order worth saving in the first place. America has been successful in shaping and sustaining order over the past 70 years because our strength rests on a global political foundation, not just on military might. In the decades after World War II, Washington led the way in building a distinctly liberal international system, defined by multilateral bodies, alliances, open trade, and political partnerships. This system tied liberal democracies together through rules and institutions that fostered both economic advancement and security cooperation -- from NATO to the Marshall Plan, from the United Nations to Bretton Woods. 

These partnerships and institutions sometimes limited our freedom of action, but ultimately they made us stronger. By binding American power in a broader system, they helped ensure it was legitimate, durable, and far-reaching, able both to deter great-power rivals and to avert counterbalancing coalitions of frightened smaller countries. They helped win broad global appeal for democracy, openness, the rule of law, and human rights.

This order does face strains, for reasons that have become familiar: the ambitions of a rising China, the emergence of headstrong new players in every region, the growing dangers of transnational threats. (It is not Pollyannaish to point out that many of these problems are byproducts of success: rising powers are rising because they have embraced the advantages of the existing order; we confront climate change because of unprecedented global growth, terrorism because of unprecedented global interdependence.) And there is undeniable cause for concern about Americans' lack of willingness to back an active foreign policy, after the traumas of failed intervention abroad and of stagnant economic prospects at home. But building on what we've done right in the past points to the best way both to repair those strains and to overcome the entirely understandable popular skepticism about the advantages of foreign-policy ambition.

That would mean decrying and overcoming congressional opposition to reform of the International Monetary Fund, a key institution of the current order. The Obama administration has won international support for restructuring the institution's governance to give new powers a larger role -- mostly at the expense of European, not American, influence -- thus ensuring their continued involvement. But opponents in Congress have stalled it, while the BRICS, denied a leadership stake that reflects their current heft, have moved ahead with plans to create financial institutions of their own.

It would mean rallying support for ratification of international treaties like the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea. We invoke the Law of the Sea to defend core principles of the global order -- when, say, China aggressively asserts its control of contested waters. But as Obama noted, America has not actually ratified it: two years ago, 34 Senate Republicans beat back the most recent effort to get congressional approval.

It would mean building a domestic consensus for ambitious trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (between the United States and the European Union). If passed, they would cement U.S. economic leadership in blocs that together represent nearly two-thirds of the global economy. But in the face of congressional paralysis and of anemic efforts to broadly distribute the gains from trade, the prospects of both deals are in doubt.

It would mean never again allowing dysfunction in Washington to keep the president of the United States from attending key international gatherings in Asia. When President Obama missed last year's East Asia Summit during the government shutdown -- just a few years after the United States joined the summit to show its commitment to playing an ongoing role in Asian politics -- it spooked allies and partners, undermined faith in U.S. staying power, and had Chinese hawks gloating. Doubt about our "credibility" has more to do with this kind of domestic dysfunction than any specific foreign-policy decision.

It would mean supporting the kinds of humanitarian initiatives that have always been a hallmark of American power. We may, for example, have a limited ability to successfully end the violence in Syria, through means either diplomatic or military, but, as Obama's speech noted, we can play the leading role in an expanded international response to the humanitarian crises that have spilled out of it, at great cost to both millions of Syrians and to the stability of its neighbors.

President Obama and his defenders don't help themselves by downplaying steps like these as "singles and doubles," as he did last month -- an analogy gleefully seized upon by detractors. Those critics, meanwhile, are wrong to belittle such measures as weak or fancifully utopian. Efforts like these, as much as military power, account for the past successes of American leadership and the international order we built. They have been, and remain, some of our most powerful weapons.

Aude Guerrucci-Pool/Getty Images


If All Else Fails, Blame the Israelis

The Turkish indictment of Israeli officials for the Mavi Marmara raid looks like a cynical ploy by Recep Tayyip Erdogan to shore up his popularity.

An eleventh-hour Turkish lawfare initiative may prevent Ankara's long-awaited rapprochement with Israel. Days shy of the four-year anniversary of the 2010 Mavi Marmara raid, the Istanbul High Criminal Court on May 26 indicted four former top Israeli military commanders for their involvement in the ill-fated flotilla to Gaza. In a 144-page indictment, the Turkish court ordered the arrests of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of General Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Naval Forces Commander Vice Admiral Eliezer Marom, Israeli military intelligence chief Major Gen. Amos Yadlin and Air Forces Intelligence head Brigadier Gen. Avishai Levi.

It is extremely unlikely that any of the Israeli officers will ever do time behind bars, of course. Interpol is unlikely to respond positively to the Turkish court's request that it issue a red notice, which would direct countries around the world to seek the arrest of the Israeli commanders. However, the move threatens to upend a crucial moment for Turkish-Israeli rapprochement efforts: According to the Turkish and Israeli press, a $20 million compensation deal for the families of 10 Turks killed by Israeli commandos during the Mavi Marmara incident was "imminent," and normalization of ties was expected to follow.

The Turkish charity responsible for organizing the provocative flotilla, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), was reportedly among the primary actors pressing the Turkish government to shun a deal. Last week, IHH lawyer Ugur Yildirim told reporters that the foundation had been "in close contact" with the Turkish government and had warned the authorities against dropping the charges.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had nothing to do with the indictment. But given the strong relationship between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the IHH, as well as its increasing control over the Turkish judiciary, not everyone believes him. At least one Israeli official believes the decision to go forward with the indictment came directly from the prime minister.

Even if Erdogan was not involved in the judicial ruling, he will directly benefit in the court of public opinion. Turkey will hold its first presidential elections through a popular vote in August and it is widely believed that Erdogan, the dominant figure in Turkish politics since he became premier in 2003, will run -- and that he will win. The indictment will play well with his base: conservative Turkish voters who reject the normalization process. A Pew Research Center survey in spring 2013 found that only 2 percent of Turks viewed Israel favorably, while 86 percent had a negative view.

This is not the first time that Erdogan has used Israel as a way to drum up political support for his party. In a speech delivered in January 2009 before Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's visit to Turkey, Erdogan explicitly asked that Israel be barred from the United Nations. There was also the Davos incident that same year, where Erdogan stormed offstage during a debate with Israeli President Shimon Peres, telling the Nobel Peace Prize-winner, "When it comes to killing, you know very well how to kill."

In June 2010, following the flotilla incident, Erdogan delivered a fiery speech at the Turkish parliament in which he warned Israel not to "test Turkey's patience" and, to the delight of his conservative political base, accused the Israeli government of massacring Palestinians. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal's invitation to the AKP convention in 2012 was also an apparent success for Erdogan; AKP voters cheered the Hamas leader as he took the stage.

Israel's leaders certainly understand that the indictment is a political tool for Erdogan during an election season. But even this might not necessarily stop them from moving forward with the compensation package. Indeed, a signed deal would likely require Turkey to pass legislation that would render the court order invalid.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not appear sold on the terms of the package, however. Although negotiators finalized the deal in February, the Israeli leader has neither signed it nor brought it to a vote. This unquestionably stems from his cabinet's mistrust in the Erdogan government. The Israeli government understands that putting the flotilla in the past does not pave the way for a rosy alliance with Turkey in the future.  

Under Erdogan, Turkey has quietly become a harbor for terrorism finance and other activity that threatens Israel. Most notably, Turkey allowed Iran to process $12 billion in gas-for-gold transfers, in an effort to circumvent international sanctions designed to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Istanbul Police Department officials also told Turkish media that Turkey's Finance Ministry was investigating another $118 billion in illegal transactions that benefited Iran. Needless to say, this has undermined Israel's interests, given Iran's longstanding antipathy for the Jewish state.

In addition, senior figures from Hamas and businessmen accused of financing al Qaeda are alleged to be roaming around in Turkey with Ankara's knowledge. A German court has also upheld Berlin's ban on the IHH, due to the fact that it contributed funds to Hamas. And while these issues were not what prompted it, the international watchdog body responsible for setting global standards for combating terrorism finance has found Ankara in gross violation of its responsibilities.

To be sure, strategic and economic interests may nevertheless pave the way for a loveless Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. But the Netanyahu government has no illusions: Erdogan's Turkey will never be the ally to Israel today that it was in the 1990s. Under an Islamist leadership that offers an anti-Israeli narrative for every domestic crisis, Turkey has become a hostile environment for Israel -- and appears likely to remain that way as long as Erdogan dominates politics in Ankara.