Breaking things can feel satisfying, but as we've seen in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it only gets you so far. U.S. missile strikes against Assad's forces won't turn Syria into a stable democracy. They won't discredit or destroy Syria's Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. They probably won't stop the Syrian civil war either. As an ill-timed but candid letter from Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) noted on Aug. 19: "[T]he use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious, and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict.… [V]iolent struggles for power will continue after Assad's rule ends."
The costs of living in Lake Wobegon:
Obama is no one's fool. He understands that U.S. influence is declining and that our still-unparalleled power to destroy can tempt us into disaster. But he won't say any of this straight out.
Instead, he skates delicately around the edges of straight talk. He suggests that America can't solve all the world's problems. He reminds us, as he did in a CNN interview this month, that "the situation in Syria is very difficult and the notion that the U.S. can somehow solve what is a sectarian, complex problem inside of Syria sometimes is overstated.… Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that … gets us mired in very difficult situations." But he won't tell Americans the blunt truths they need to hear: We can't fix Syria. Or Egypt. Or most other places. We don't even know how to fix our own problems.
Obama tends to couple even such mild reminders of U.S. limitations with Lake Wobegon-style cheerleading. "Around the world there is a new feeling about America," he enthused to Air Force Academy cadets in a 2012 speech. "There's a new confidence in our leadership.… The United States is stronger … and more respected in the world." The United States is "the greatest nation on earth," he gushed a few months later. Just this month, in the very same CNN interview in which he cautioned against rushing to action in Syria, he insisted that America is "the one indispensable nation."
I'm sympathetic to Obama's plight. Every time he tries to be halfway honest about declining U.S. power, the right jumps all over him. But his failure to be honest also comes with a cost.
When the president keeps insisting that the United States is the greatest/strongest/most beloved/most powerful country on Earth, here's what happens: The rest of us start to believe it, and we start to demand results that match the rhetoric. If we're so awesome and so strong, why aren't we fixing Syria? Why aren't we intimidating the Russians and getting the Egyptian military to behave and generally controlling the world as we see fit?
To Americans accustomed to a stream of triumphalist, exceptionalist rhetoric, Obama's failure to act forcefully in the face of other states' bad behavior doesn't look like the wisdom of a president who understands the increasing limits of American power -- it just looks like hypocrisy, lack of interest, or baffling passivity.
If Obama could bring himself to speak more honestly about the limits of American power, he might well pay a short-term political price -- but in the long term, he might also find Americans much more willing to cut him some slack.
Still more importantly, some increased presidential honesty about the decline of U.S. power might refocus Americans on the things that we can change. We can't fix Egypt or Syria, but we can make sure we don't provide money or weapons to actors who will use them to slaughter their own people. We can describe the world and its tragedies accurately, instead of destroying the English language in a foolish, ineffectual attempt to maintain our "influence." (See: The coup we won't call a coup). We can make sure we only engage in military interventions when we're quite certain we can do more good than harm.
Most of all, we can turn their attention to fixing some of the glaring social and economic injustices in our own society -- and we can try to live up to the human rights and rule-of-law standards that we have long urged on other states by taking a hard look at U.S. counterterrorism policies and their impact.
This is an argument for honesty, not for isolationism. We need to remain globally engaged, and yes, at times that may require the use of military force -- but our engagement should be predicated on a healthy understanding of our limits.
And who knows? If we devote more energy to living up to our own values and less to scolding or "punishing" others, we might find ourselves becoming a truly indispensible nation once again: a nation that inspires not resentment, but hope.