I’m struggling to remember a recent stretch of time with so many significant challenges facing America’s foreign policy establishment. Put yourself in the shoes of the Obama administration and think about what you see when you look at the world…
Protests across Asia and North Africa related to an offensive, low-quality movie, with many of the protests turning violent;
The murder of our ambassador by a group taking advantage of instability in post-revolution Libya;
We don’t really know if one of the largest recipients of foreign aid, and the largest country in the Arab world, is an ally that can be trusted;
A dispute between the second and third largest economies in the world (China and Japan) regarding uninhabited islands that is exacerbated by nationalist pride and leading to closing of factories and more protests;
The collapse of our strategy in Afghanistan following a series of attacks, one of which being a brilliantly executed attack on an important aviation unit;
A rise in oil prices related to moves to stabilize employment markets domestically and the currency and banks in Europe;
Complaints by one of our closest allies, Israel, about how we plan to back up our statements about Iran’s nuclear weapons program; and,
Today I asked my foreign policy students to form two working groups and put together a proposal for responding to just two of these crises. Between reading up on the background and trying to project likely outcomes, it’s shaping up to be a tough week for them, too.
The big takeaway for me, and I hope for my students is that it’s not easy to be in charge. If we consider the lives and livelihoods at stake with any one of these challenges, I reach two conclusions about evaluating leaders. First, who a leader trusts to advise them is at least as important as how that leader looks at a problem. With so much going on, advisors matter more than we think. Second, it is easy slip into the mindset of expecting our leaders to be able to control things that they really can do little about without making things worse. It is tempting to say that we would do things differently if we were in charge, but realistically, we regularly judge our leaders too harshly.
We should expect our leaders to prioritize, plan, and manage a response to the major problems in the world, and we should hold them accountable for their performance. But before we spout off about how a leader is failing, be sure to have an understanding of just how big their job actually is.