Voice

America, Limited

How the U.S. went from the world's CEO to just another shareholder.

My dad was an old artillery officer. Having escaped Hitler as a teenager, he was fighting for America in Europe five years later. You would think this would have had a profound impact on him. You would think it would produce great lessons he could pass on to his kids. It probably did. But he didn't pass them on. Rather, he said that the most important lesson he learned in the field artillery was, "If you can sit down, sit down. If you can lie down, lie down. And if you can sleep, sleep."

It's a lesson I took to heart. Interestingly, the spirit of this lesson now infuses all American foreign policy. With regard to America's approach to the world today, the version of my father's maxim would be: "If you can do little, do little. If you can do nothing, do nothing. And if you can get the heck out, get the heck out."

It used to be that America distinguished itself from every other nation because we were the only country in the world that when almost anything happened, our response would be "What should we do?" While for most other countries, the responding question would be "Should we do something?" Today, however, the idea of taking action is so anathema or difficult or risk-laden or all of the above, that when something happens, the question America seems to grapple with is "What should we say about this?" 

The United States has gone from being a hyperpower to becoming the equivalent of a mere commentator on world affairs. Too often, it seems we practice foreign policy by Twitter. In our hugely president-centric system it looks like the president and his views are our primary foreign policy deliverables. He disapproves. He approves. He imposes a red line in Syria. He moves the line, and then he moves it again. He seems to forget about the line even as evidence of repeated use of chemical weapons by the Syrians seems to mount. This is how America throws its weight around these days.   

How do we deal with a problem like Egypt? Lay on the adjectives. Russia got you down? Throw in a crack about Vladimir Putin's posture. Oh sure, we can take modest action. In Russia, for instance, we cancelled a meeting with our president. In Egypt, we pull the plug on joint military exercises that seemed likely to be cancelled anyway. I've seen more meaningful gestures in a conversation between two old Jewish guys on a bench in Miami Beach. And within days even what actions we did take with regard to Egypt were obscured in a bizarre set of conflicting messages -- first aid to Egypt was under review, then possibly suspended, but secretly, but maybe not, but... Well, none of it mattered anyway because the Saudis said they would provide whatever financial support we withheld. So in the end, our meager influence was negated and virtually all our real allies in the region alienated, left to doubt our resolve.

What we are doing in Egypt is the opposite of policy. It is confusion wrapped in chaos shrouded in incoherence. It doesn't demonstrate influence, it undercuts it. Many of the president's most stalwart supporters are starting to worry that -- following the departures of strong voices like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and former CIA Director and SecDef Leon Panetta -- America's standing is deteriorating. One former top Democratic National Security official said to me, "The result of repeated ineffective incrementalism is impotence. I'm afraid Ben Rhodes may have been half right when he called what we were doing ‘leading from behind.' Because in many instances now, we're not leading at all."

Now, given that in our very recent past we have paid a high price for over-reaction and over-reach, more measured, thoughtful, and nuanced responses are certainly welcome in principle. Furthermore, in some cases -- despite public outcry and justifiable indignation (as in Egypt and in Russia) -- it is important to remember that nothing is as simple as the talk show moralizing makes it out to be. For example, while murdering protestors in the street is deplorable, it is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood abused power and committed human rights violations on such a widespread scale that it's hard for any fair-minded observer not to welcome their removal from office. And while Putin may be a relentless provocateur, issues like nuclear disarmament still require open dialogue between our countries and shutting down relations now would be extremely foolhardy. 

That said earlier examples of our "less is more" foreign policy helped create the dilemmas we have with both Egypt and Russia. Both instances illustrate how strong action was called for and its absence exacerbated serious problems that dog us today. In the case of ousted president Mohamed Morsy, we were comparatively quiet as he ran roughshod over the Egyptian constitution. Had we had a serious conversation about revoking aid or had we, in concert with our allies, applied greater pressure on him, perhaps we could have influenced events so they wouldn't have deteriorated to the point that a military overthrow of his government was not only inevitable but welcomed by so many Egyptians. That we failed to take action against Putin as he enabled Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of his own people in Syria, but instead felt compelled to punish him for granting asylum to Edward Snowden, speaks volumes about our priorities. (We could make the same argument for earlier, more decisive action in Syria, the benefits of which could have included more support for the anti-Assad opposition. And given today's fresh allegations coming from Damascus of chemical attacks, this early action should have included targeted, limited but potent use of air power once it was clear Obama's erstwhile "red line" had been crossed months and months ago.)

As Joe Biden predicted during the 2008 campaign, Obama has been tested by foreign leaders. And, after each challenge, the resulting message -- sent again and again -- has been clear: you may get a stern talking to but these days the United States doesn't really have the appetite for bold foreign policy moves. 

(One notable exception to this has been the U.S. effort to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- a worthy endeavor to be sure. Though the United States stands to lose as much for not doing it as for doing it and the outcome in either case is very likely to be the same. Indeed, it could be construed as a way of sidestepping the region's more difficult and important problems. My friend David Sanger of the New York Times has observed that important as Kerry's efforts are, these recent negotiations echo a previous era -- when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was at the center of Washington and the world's agenda. But today, Sanger notes, it is at best the fourth priority in the second most important region of the world. First priority and the top region is Asia -- the land of economic opportunity, innovation, and the rise of a huge middle class on which American growth depends. Then, back in the region of old problems, the No. 1 priority is a nuclear Iran, the No. 2 and No. 3 priorities are the arc of instability created by Egypt's upheaval and Syria's potential explosion. According to Sanger, this means that the secretary of state is devoting a huge amount of political capital and diplomatic bandwidth to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- a problem that, even if miraculously solved, will not help America manage China's rise, halt proliferation, or bring stability to the region. There may have been a time, he suggests, when Israeli-Palestinian peace promised at least some of that, but this is not that time.)

While I was in Asia last week, a point that was repeatedly emphasized to me was that America's lack of engagement (or apparent strategy) in the region was raising concerns from Canberra to New Delhi, from Seoul to Manila. The problem was compounded by the fact that while America leans back, others are stepping up. Geopolitics abhors a vacuum. China is already reaching out to its neighbors in Southeast Asia offering to build ports and roads and other big projects that will knit economies together and breed interdependency. China has a plan to consolidate influence even as ours fades from lack of effective use. What our partners in the region would like is for us to have a plan for a regional architecture that offers more balance. President Obama will have two chances to explore such options during trips to Asia later this year ... but how can he given the lack of groundwork and thinking that's been done in this area to date?

But if some of the administration's overall caution is directly traceable to characteristics of the president and his team, there is a host of other contributing factors turning us inward -- the aftermath of catastrophic involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan, our financial problems at home, and the polarization of American politics. And despite howls to the contrary, left and right wingers -- as evidenced by policy visions offered by the president and Senator Rand Paul -- share some striking similarities. Both men and the political parties they represent seem more comfortable with America lite, both men would effectively rebrand the country America, Ltd., with the emphasis on the limitations.

While the modern Middle East contains several case studies in the folly of American over-involvement, we are perhaps predictably now swinging in the other direction. And as a result, we are creating a new set of case studies that reveal the consequences of America's reluctance to work hard, with friends where possible, to take real action or maintain a presence when necessary.

Currently, America is very nearly immobilized by guilt, risk aversions, the president's naturally cautious nature, lessons learned (and some mislearned), financial distress, and political dysfunction. And though we are still the most powerful nation on earth, power is nothing without the will or the know-how to use it. That doesn't mean we should engage in a new wave of military adventures. As one Middle Eastern leader said in a meeting I attended, "We don't need America to be on the playing field. But we would welcome them as a coach with a clear plan and position." First and foremost the answer lies in reasserted presidential leadership. In addition, it requires an adjustment in attitude and a level of administration-wide effort as well as the discipline and high-level commitment to develop and implement strategies, delegate authority appropriately, listen to and work more effectively with our allies, and all the other elements required by actively managing a multidimensional foreign policy. 

In the near term, many of our closest allies are concluding they can no longer expect this of us. Just like our president who made a quick statement on Egypt and immediately returned to the golf course last week, this is one superpower that is on vacation. How long the break will last will go a long way toward determining whether the decade ahead will be seen as a period of protracted U.S. decline or a time of rebound, one that so many of our allies (and even some of our rivals) recognize the world needs if it is to be a safer, more stable, more prosperous place.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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