But by sophomore year, the unreality of the "realist" strategy had become apparent. Lizza quotes a five-page memorandum on the Middle East Obama sent to his top foreign policy advisers in August 2010 noting "evidence of growing citizen discontent with the region's regimes" and instructing them to come up with "country by country" strategies on political reform.
A three-member task force "was just finishing its work" in December when the Tunisian vegetable vendor set himself on fire. In responding to the uprisings there and in Egypt, Lizza reports, "Obama's instinct was to try to have it both ways. ... Obama's ultimate position, it seemed, was to talk like an idealist while acting like a realist."
It's not uncommon for college students to have wildly oscillating views on issues as the months go by. It's more consequential for a president to do so. As foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead notes: "President Obama likes to hedge. If he puts four chips on black, he almost immediately wants to put three chips on red."
Lizza gives a detailed account of how Obama and his advisers have been putting chips on black and red in Egypt and Libya over the past two months. And he provides a revealing summing up. "One of his advisers described the president's actions in Libya as 'leading from behind,'" he writes.
"It's a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world."
"That's not," Lizza, who often writes on domestic politics, interjects, "a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic National Convention." No, it's not. But it's one you may hear about from Republicans.