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With the race for the Republican nomination well under way, an America not led by Barack Obama seems to optimists to be just around the corner. A Republican president would face economic recovery as his chief task, but foreign policy would intrude fast.

Just as Obama sought to differentiate himself from his predecessor, a new president would surely break with Obama quickly in his approach to the world. In critical ways, Obama has reversed not just Bush policy but every president's approach to the world since the Second World War, save for that of his soulmate Jimmy Carter. Obama has eschewed American leadership, adopting in its place what the New Yorker famously called the policy of "leading from behind".

Libya is the perfect example, and the administration's self-satisfied claims of victory when Gaddafi was driven from power may have provoked bitter laughter in Benghazi. For by restricting the use of American power in Libya, by keeping back American assets such as the A-10 air-to-ground warplane that allies lacked, he stretched what might have been a six-week war into six months and thereby lengthened the Libyan casualty lists by tens of thousands. A side product of this approach has been to weaken Nato and the confidence of America's partners in US willingness to act. If Nato has trouble in Libya, right on the doorstep of all those European bases, where can it risk any serious challenge? In the Obama view such a conclusion is presumably a good thing, likely to check adventurism.

Great Right hopes: US Republican presidential candidates (from left) Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry (Chris O'Meara/AP) 

For Obama, as for Carter, the American role in the world is a thing to be restrained not celebrated. This is reflected not only in his narrow view of American exceptionalism, but also in his dismissive attitude towards traditional allies such as Britain, which he seems to view as guilty by association in Iraq and in the many forms of US-UK cooperation against terrorists. What is special about American foreign policy — muscular leadership — is what must be ended or blunted, in this view. We must not put building alliances at the heart of our foreign policy because alliances are after all the sinew of military action and the basis for nasty renditions. Instead we must reach out to those seen as hostile or uncooperative, from Iran and North Korea to Russia, offering "resets" and engagement and new talks. This approach has already failed but the learning curve is flat, and there will only be more of such policies if there is a second term for Obama. As the approach is motivated not by the lessons of experience but by a deep belief in the rightness of its theory of America in the world, neither mere events nor its own internal contradictions will change it.

The grudging approach to popular uprisings in the Middle East is a good example, for those revolts refute Obama's understanding of the region entirely. His policy was to engage despots, whether in Tehran or Cairo, for in his view their complaints and demands were half justified, at least given America's decades of error in the region. As to the populations of those countries, they were barely visible and were seen anyway as motivated above all by resentment of American support for Israel. The Bush "freedom agenda" was jettisoned as yet another right-wing mistake. In Egypt, for example, no aid was given to NGOs promoting human rights and democracy unless they were approved by the Mubarak regime, reversing the policy Bush had adopted. 

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