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Wounded Giant

The only thing America is good at these days is breaking things.

Pity poor President Obama. These days, he can't win.

Do nothing as the slaughter in Syria continues? Critics will say he's weak, he lacks strategic vision, he's indifferent to the suffering that Bashar al-Assad's regime is inflicting on the Syrian people, and he doesn't care whether Assad thumbs his nose at international law.

Take military action in Syria? Critics will say he's a reckless hawk, he lacks strategic vision, he's indifferent to the suffering a U.S. air campaign will inflict on the Syrian people, and he's thumbing his nose at international law.

It's not just Syria. It's Egypt, too, and the dashed hopes of the Arab Spring. It's the no-win endless war against al Qaeda and the no-win soon-to-end war in Afghanistan. It's the failed "reset" with Russia and the stillborn "pivot" to Asia. Look to your left, look to your right: You won't see many defenders of Obama's foreign policy these days.

But though Obama deserves some of the blame for his current predicament, it's not all his own fault. He's hamstrung by changes in global power structures, hampered by our national unwillingness to hear unpleasant truths, and forced into the appearance of hypocrisy by his reluctance to tell us what we don't want to hear.

Here are three uncomfortable truths Obama surely knows but won't say:

1. The American century is truly over.

America is a declining power. Because we live in Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average, you'll never hear the president acknowledge this in public, but it's true. Deal with it.

Blame "the rise of the rest." Europe, despite its various woes, has become a major power. China, India, and Brazil are playing ever larger roles on the world stage, and Russia is still strong enough to be a potent spoiler. Yes, we're still the world's most powerful state, but our relative power is declining as other states flex their political and economic muscles.

Blame technology. Technological change has made us less autonomous than we used to be. Blame air travel, the Internet, and the cell phone, which have collectively ushered in an era in which virtually everything -- people, ideas, images, money, weapons, pollution, viruses -- can zoom quickly around the globe. This, in turn, has created a host of problems no single state can solve alone. We're are no longer the sole authors of our national destiny.

And let's save some blame for ourselves. The country has made a hash of things. We squandered much of our moral credibility after the 9/11 attacks (torture and secret prisons) and wasted trillions of dollars on wars as ruinously expensive as they were politically inconclusive. Our current counterterrorism policies (drones, surveillance by the National Security Agency) are angering even our closest allies. Domestically, we're also in trouble: Our infrastructure is an embarrassment, our public education system has been allowed to decay, we lock up a higher percentage of our population than any country on Earth -- we're even too fat to fight. Not to mention, our domestic political system is broken, and the bipartisan rancor on Capitol Hill makes it hard to imagine turning any of this around.

2. No one really cares what we think, and we can't fix much of anything.

The United States no longer has the ability to mold the world into the shape it prefers. Countries that once courted us no longer trouble to seek our approval or agreement; our allies remain polite, but just barely, and our adversaries are increasingly willing to thumb their noses at us in public.

Sure, everyone's still happy to take our money -- what little we has left -- but even our wealth no longer buys much influence. The Egyptian military takes the $1.3 billion in aid we provide each year but ignores us when doing so suits it; the Egyptian military knows others will step forward to fill its coffers if we have a sudden attack of conscience. The Pakistani government takes our money and helps our enemies. Even our puppets refuse to act like puppets: We've has handed over endless suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai's Afghan government, and all it has gotten us is a "partner" who denounces us on a regular basis.

So you want Obama to "fix things" in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan? How? We can't even fix the public schools in the nation's capital. Why would anyone imagine we can fix things anywhere else?

3. Breaking things has become our main talent.

America has become a wounded giant. We're steadily weakening, but we're still strong enough to hurt a lot of people as we flail around. We can still summon up awesome destructive power, and in a world in which fewer and fewer people care about what we think or even need our money, it's increasingly tempting to fall back on brute force.

Back in 2001, we ousted the Taliban in a matter of weeks. In 2003, we pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out of Baghdad in similarly short order. In 2011, we demolished Muammar al-Qaddafi's military in a brief air campaign. So yes, we can teach Syria's Assad a lesson he won't forget (if one assumes he actually controls his own forces, which is far from certain): We can destroy his chemical weapons production capabilities, bomb his planes, and flatten his tanks.

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.

Brendan Smialowski-Pool/Getty Images

National Security

A Model of American Opacity

How Obama's drone war echoes Egypt's military crackdown.

I can no longer keep track of all the ways the United States has lost the moral high ground when it comes to Egypt.

There was our initial namby-pamby response to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011: We made vague noises about the virtues of democracy, but we dithered over calling for Mubarak to step down, because we're Dictators R Us -- Mubarak might have been a bastard, but he was our bastard. After Mubarak's ouster, we continued to sit on our hands as Egypt's interim military government grew ever more repressive in the run-up to elections. When the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy won the presidency in the summer of 2012 and began rapidly consolidating power, we remained dithery, coupling the occasional pious call for increased political freedom with expressions of faint support for the entirely unlovable Morsy and faint distaste for the burgeoning secular protest movement.

Then, when Morsy was ousted in a military coup, we took a leaf from Orwell and insisted there hadn't been a coup, just "an incredibly complex and difficult situation" in which there was "a decision made by the Egyptian armed forces to remove President Morsy from power and to suspend the constitution," which is, of course, nothing at all like a coup.

This week, our response to the news that more than 600 Islamist protesters were killed by Egyptian security forces was to issue a stiff verbal rebuke and cancel a planned joint military exercise with the Egyptians. Yeah, that'll show ‘em. Since we still can't bring ourselves to cut the annual $1.3 billion in military aid we give Egypt, Egypt's armed forces are presumably laughing their way to the bank.

All that's ample reason for shame. But we've also lost the moral high ground for another, less obvious reason: Given the disgraceful lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes, we no longer have any principled ground on which to stand as we condemn the killings in Egypt.

That's because the Egyptian government's rationale for its recent killings is unpleasantly similar to our own government's rationale for drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

To the international press, the hundreds of Islamists killed in Cairo this week are protesters exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. True, some among those protesters may have committed acts of criminal violence, assaulting police stations and attacking members of Egypt's security forces, but that's no excuse for shooting people down. The security forces should use lethal force in self-defense only and should otherwise respond to the ongoing protests using only non-lethal methods.

Naturally, Egypt's current leadership offers a different version of the story. In their version, they're not dealing with largely peaceful protesters -- they're dealing with violent Islamic extremists committing "terrorist acts" to "demolish the pillars of the Egyptian state," as an Egyptian government statement put it. The terrorists have already demonstrated their commitment and capacity for lethal violence by staging attacks on dozens of police stations, government buildings, and churches, and killing more than 40 security officials. Naturally, non-lethal law enforcement methods are the preferred means of dealing with terror threats, but such methods have been tried and proved inadequate. "It became necessary to finish this thing," Egypt's ambassador to the United States explained sorrowfully in an interview with Foreign Policy.

Because what's a peace-loving state to do when threatened by violent extremists with a demonstrated determination and ability to commit acts of terror? Sometimes, it's necessary to use lethal force. No, it's not pretty, and occasionally, despite a conscientious government's best efforts, errors in intelligence or targeting will be made and the innocent will suffer, but what can you expect? This is war, and war is hell, and kindly mind your own damn business, United States.

To Egypt's military government, American officials condemning the killings are nothing but hypocrites. After all, is there any significant difference between what Egypt is doing in its own streets and what the United States is doing in the streets of other states?

When the United States uses drone strikes to kill alleged terrorists -- strikes that have killed thousands of people, not hundreds -- it doesn't show the world the evidence that led to those targeting decisions. It doesn't offer specifics about the past bad behavior of those it kills, or details of the future damage they would likely inflict if left unmolested. It doesn't acknowledge mistakes or offer a public account of any civilian deaths unintentionally inflicted. On the contrary, the United States does exactly what the Egyptian authorities are doing: It asserts the existence of a threat to national security, asserts its right to use force to counter it, asks the world to trust in the good faith and good judgment of its officials, and otherwise tells critics to buzz off.

True, Egypt is using lethal force inside its own borders, rather than inside the borders of another state. But does this make it worse, or better? The U.S. government does its killing far from its own territory, away from the prying eyes of journalists, judges, members of Congress, and anyone else who might be dismayed by the bloody aftermath of what we're so fond of viewing as "surgical" strikes. Egypt's government is at least doing its dirty work right out in the open, where its population can judge its actions for itself. (So far, many in Egypt seem content: As the New York Times reported today, many in Cairo apparently view the killings as justified. The Times story quotes one source explaining approvingly that Egypt's security forces need to "fight terrorism" and that the military has been transparent in its actions, moving in on protesters during the daytime, rather than under cover of darkness, so that "everything was obvious.")

And don't be too sure the U.S. government wouldn't resort to lethal force to kill domestic terrorists, if it comes to that. Probably not with drones, but weaponized drones are just a convenient way to kill people in regions where it's impractical for the United States to deploy ground personnel. The United States has not yet faced a domestic threat of the magnitude Egypt's authorities claim to be facing, and although American officials insist that they would always abide by domestic legal requirements when countering any terrorist threats at home, the logic of the Obama administration's argument about drone strikes isn't very reassuring. If the United States is legally entitled to kill suspected terrorists in Yemen because they're considered combatants in our armed conflict against al Qaeda and its associates, there's no obvious reason for the United States to refrain from killing suspected enemy combatants operating inside its borders if circumstances render non-lethal law enforcement methods impracticable. As ever in the war on terror, our only real safeguard against government abuse is the good character and self-restraint of American officials.

To be clear, I'm not expecting black helicopters to swoop down on the next Code Pink protest in Washington; I do, in fact, have a great deal of faith in our government's commitment to using only law enforcement methods inside our borders. I'll go further than that: Although I regard most U.S. drone strikes as strategically short-sighted and marred by an appalling disregard for rule-of-law principles, I accept the administration's assurance that strikes are carried out only after an exacting review process.

But although I believe the U.S. government has a far greater commitment to safeguarding innocent lives and exercising self-restraint than the Egyptian authorities, the utter lack of transparency surrounding U.S. drone strikes ensures that no one can prove it.

And that's not good enough. How can our condemnations of the bloody abuses in Egypt have any credibility when we've given the world no basis for believing we're less savage ourselves?

Ed Giles/Getty Images