Argument

Sorry, Mitt: It Won't Be an American Century

American politicians should stop pretending the United States runs the world.

"This century must be an American century," Mitt Romney insisted in a recent speech on foreign policy. "In an American century," the former Massachusetts governor continued, "America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world." Adhering to his party's traditional playbook, the likely Republican nominee went on to reaffirm that the United States is "an exceptional country with a unique destiny."

In an election season, such talk rolls easily off the tongue. But Romney's hackneyed rhetoric is woefully out of step -- both with an American electorate hungry for a less costly brand of foreign policy and with a world in the midst of tectonic change. A sharp economic downturn and expensive, inconclusive conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have left Americans ready for a focus on the home front. Abroad, the charge for the next U.S. president can hardly be to stick his head in the sand and deny that the global distribution of power is fast changing. On the contrary, it is to react soberly and steadily to the implications of such change and ensure that the United States remains secure and prosperous even as economic and military strength spreads to new quarters.

President Barack Obama is on the correct path. Leaving Iraq and overseeing a paced withdrawal from Afghanistan will bring U.S. commitments back into line with U.S. interests. Special operations and drone strikes have proved far more effective in fighting al Qaeda than has occupying countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and an offshore posture in the Persian Gulf is the best way to deal with Iran. Amid China's rise and the economic dynamism building in its neighborhood, Obama is right to downsize the U.S. presence in Europe and orchestrate a strategic "pivot" to East Asia. The move constitutes a necessary hedge against Chinese ambition and ensures that American workers will benefit from expanding markets in the Pacific Rim. These policies will enable the United States to simultaneously adjust to a shifting global landscape, husband its resources, and grow its economy -- facilitating the president's pledge to focus on "nation-building here at home."

Romney has already denigrated Obama's pragmatism, charging that "our president thinks America is in decline." Obama shot back in his State of the Union address on Jan. 24 that "anyone who tells you that America is in decline … doesn't know what they're talking about." Obama decidedly has the upper hand in this back-and-forth. He recognizes that, the country's strengths notwithstanding, U.S. strategy must adjust to a world in which power will be more broadly distributed. And his focus on rebuilding the American economy speaks directly to an electorate yearning for more equity and prosperity at home.

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of Americans want the United States to "mind its own business," and 76 percent think the country should "concentrate more on our own national problems" than on foreign challenges. These are high numbers by historical standards -- a clear indication that the electorate is hurting economically and wary of strategic overreach. Romney should take note. His chest-thumping talk of a new American century still plays well in some quarters. But Obama's commitment to nation-building at home will play even better.

Even if Romney's rhetoric were to get more domestic traction, it would still bear no resemblance to the new global landscape that is fast emerging. The United States is indeed an exceptional nation -- in its prized geographic location, commitment to freedom and democracy, and brand of international leadership. But the country's exceptionalism should not be used as an excuse to hide from global realities.

China's GDP will catch up with America's over the course of the next decade. The World Bank predicts that the dollar, euro, and China's renminbi will become co-equals in a "multi-currency" monetary system by 2025. Goldman Sachs expects the collective GDP of the top four developing countries -- Brazil, China, India, and Russia -- to match that of the G-7 countries by 2032. The United States will no doubt exit the current slump and bounce back economically in the years ahead. Nonetheless, a more level global playing field is inevitable.

To be sure, America's military superiority will remain second to none for decades to come. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made amply clear, though, military primacy hardly ensures effective influence. And with the U.S. defense budget poised to shrink in the service of restoring the country's fiscal health, the United States will have to pick its fights carefully. Shrewd and judicious statecraft will be at least as important as raw power in ensuring the country's security.

To acknowledge the need for the United States to adjust to prospective shifts in the global distribution of power is not, as Duke University professor Bruce Jentleson recently pointed out in Democracy, to be a declinist or a pessimist. It is to be a realist. And safely guiding the United States through this coming transition requires seeing the world as it is rather than retreating toward the illusory comfort of denial.

Adjusting to the rise of the rest requires, for starters, making more room at the table for newcomers. That process is already well under way. The G-20 has supplanted the G-8, widening the circle for global consultations. In the aftermath of reforms adopted in 2010, developing countries now have enhanced weight at the World Bank and IMF. The enlargement of the U.N. Security Council, though currently bogged down in wrangling, is also in the offing.

But making international institutions more representative is the easy part. More challenging will be managing the ideological diversity that will accompany the coming realignment in global power. Precisely because the United States is an exceptional nation, its version of liberal democracy may well prove to be the exception, not the rule.

In China, Russia, and the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, state-led brands of capitalism are holding their own -- and may well do so for the foreseeable future. The Arab Spring could finally bring democratic rule to at least some countries in the Middle East, but it is also breeding political Islam; democratization should not be mistaken for Westernization. Even emerging powers that are already democracies, such as India, Brazil, and Turkey, are charting their own paths. They regularly break with the United States and Europe on trade, Middle East diplomacy, military intervention, the environment, and other issues, preferring to side with other ascending states, whether democratic or not. Romney's paeans to American power are no excuse for his silence on how he plans to manage these complexities.

Promoting international stability will grow more demanding as rising powers bring to the table their differing conceptions of order and governance. The United States has a key role to play in managing such diversity and channeling it toward cooperative ends. Overheated proclamations of American preeminence, however, will do more harm than good. If a new, consensual international order is to emerge, rising powers must be treated as stakeholders in that order, not merely as objects of American power.

Shepherding the transition to this more pluralistic world is arguably the defining challenge facing U.S. statecraft in the years ahead. Romney appears ready to pave over this challenge by denying that such change is afoot and attempting to portray Obama's policies as "an eloquently justified surrender of world leadership."

Obama should welcome this debate and refuse to let his opponents hide behind the veil of American exceptionalism. Democrats no longer need to feel vulnerable on national security; Obama has demonstrated smarts and strength on many issues, including the degradation of al Qaeda, the pivot to Asia, and the isolation of Iran. He understands that agile, firm diplomacy backed by American power will do much more for the United States than congratulatory talk of American primacy.

A smarter, more selective, and less costly U.S. role in the world would not only help the United States get its own house in order, but also give rising powers the wider berth they seek. And good policy would also be good politics; Americans are keen to share with others the burdens and responsibilities of international engagement. The world desperately needs a brand of U.S. leadership that focuses not on ruling the roost, but on guiding a more diverse and unwieldy globe to consensus and cooperation.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

Free Radical

Bashar al-Assad appears to have let one of the world's most prominent jihadist ideologues out of jail. He's playing with fire.

An old face appears poised to play a new role in the jihadist movement. On Feb. 2, plugged-in online jihadists confirmed that one of the jihad's most original and respected theoreticians, Abu Musab al-Suri, had been released from a Syrian prison.

While not a household name like Osama bin Laden, Suri enjoys a burgeoning influence on the global jihadist movement, and particularly those based in the West. The veteran Syrian jihadist, whose real name is Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Sitt Maryam Nasar, is best known for his 1,600-page treatise Dawat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyyah (Call of Global Islamic Resistance), which articulates a strategy of decentralized jihad, rather than one that depends on clandestine organizations. If there is an architect of the jihadists' post-9/11 line of attack, it's Suri.

Suri's ideas have been popularized in jihadist circles over the past few years. They have been taken up by prominent figures like the head of al Qaeda's media department, Adam Gadahn, and Yemeni-American jihadist Anwar al-Awlaqi, as well as being featured by Samir Khan in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Inspire Magazine.

Rumors about Suri's status had been flying around online since Dec. 23, when Sooryoon.net, a Syrian opposition newspaper, published a story saying Suri and his assistant Abu Khalid had been released. It is surprising that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would release a man who is not only a confirmed enemy of his regime, but that of his father Hafez as well. By releasing a major jihadist figure, Assad is playing a dangerous game with the West, which is already debating whether to intervene in the bloody uprising in Syria.

Suri is a divisive figure, quick to pick a fight even with his fellow jihadists. In his biography of Suri, Norwegian scholar Brynjar Lia describes him as "a dissident, a critic, and an intellectual in an ideological current in which one would expect to find obedience rather than dissent."

If Suri has indeed been released, al Qaeda's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will not welcome him back into the fold with open arms. Suri, who quit al Qaeda in 1992, has feuded with the jihadist organization over their differing strategies regarding global jihad. Suri criticized the 9/11 attacks because he believed that Afghanistan, which was being used as a base by the Taliban, was crucial to the global Islamic resistance. "The outcome [of the 9/11 attacks] as a I see it, was to put a catastrophic end to the jihadi current," Suri noted. "The jihadis entered the tribulations of the current maelstrom which swallowed most of its cadres over the subsequent three years."

Suri's involvement in the jihadist world traverses the Middle East, South Asia, and its bases among Muslim communities living in the West. In 1980, at the age of 21, he dropped out of the University of Aleppo to join up with the militant offshoot of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was calling for a jihad against the Syrian regime. As Hafez al-Assad's security force cracked down on the group, Suri fled to Jordan and remained there until 1983.

Suri later moved to Spain, married a Spanish woman, and obtained Spanish citizenship. In the late 1980s, toward the end of the anti-Soviet jihad, he made his way to Peshawar and became a military instructor for one of Palestinian jihadist Abdullah Azzam's training camps. That is where he first came into contact with bin Laden. In his work the Call of Global Islamic Resistance, Suri recounted that he worked as a military instructor as well as provided lectures on politics, strategy, and guerilla warfare at al Qaeda's training camps until 1991.

After shuttling back and forth between Madrid and Afghanistan for several years, Suri moved to London in the mid-1990s. It is believed he moved because he was under pressure from Spanish security, which suspected that he was connected to terrorist attacks by the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in France in 1995. In Britain, Suri became deeply involved with the "Londonistan" jihadi underground. He helped produce and wrote articles for the GIA's magazine al-Ansar, but quit the magazine in 1996 as a result of the organization's over-the-top and sadistic tactics.

Suri returned to Afghanistan a year later, and maintained a loose affiliation with the Taliban. He is also known for having facilitated Peter Bergen's famous CNN interview with Bin Laden in 1997.

In 2000, Suri opened his own training camp -- called al-Ghuraba ("The Strangers") Camp, located in Kargha, near Kabul. It was not affiliated with al Qaeda's camps, and Suri did not have a large following. He stayed there until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, when he fled along with many other jihadists. He wrote his 1,600-page treatise in Pakistan before his arrest.

It is hard to determine Suri's intentions or capabilities now that he has reportedly been released. After being imprisoned for the past six or seven years, his psychological state remains a mystery. And even if he wanted to, it is not clear whether Suri could muster a large base of supporters in Syria. He has not lived freely in the country since the early 1980s -- his following may be larger online than in the real world.

But Suri does have a number of advantages working in his favor if he wants to once again play a role in the jihadist world. The fact that so many of the old guard -- such as bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Mohammed Atef, and Atiyyatullah Abu Abd al-Rahman -- are dead or captured would bolster his status instantly, especially since his ideas have become more accessible and popular through translations of his work.

Additionally, his lore will grow in light of an alleged vision he had this past August, which was relayed by online jihadist Jundi Dawlat al-Islam ("Soldier of the Islamic State"), a member of the important Shamukh al-Islam Arabic Forum. "I have been informed that the Shaykh [Suri] saw in the past days a vision that he will have an important role in Bilad al-Sham (Syria), we ask Allah that it becomes true," the jihadist wrote. Suri's release will be seen as a vindication of that vision by his supporters, and no doubt boost his influence.

Just because he's reportedly out of Syrian prison doesn't mean Suri is out of danger. The Spanish government may try to extract him from Syria due to his believed involvement in 2004 Madrid train bombings. Suri may also seek refuge in Yemen, which he has written is the best location for jihad and establishing an Islamic state other than the Taliban's Afghanistan.

The past 5 years has seen a rise, especially in the West, of Suri's leaderless jihad strategy. But while attacks such as the 2009 Fort Hood shooting have proven traumatic, solo attacks, by and large, have had a low success rate. Upon his release, Suri may well reevaluate this strategy and offer new thoughts on how to implement it. Whatever the case, his release will only re-energize his followers and provide new motivation for individuals to join the global jihad.

Mario Tama/Getty Images