Voice

Pre-Existing Condition

It's not Obamacare or the shutdown that's the problem -- it's the lack of American leadership.

America is wounded. Many of the wounds are self-inflicted. That befits a global power without equal. No one could damage us as much as we could damage ourselves. And many of the wounds are, for now at least, superficial. But there is blood in the water.

Imagine how we look to the world.

Imagine if you had grown up anywhere else and knew America only from a distance. You may have heard of the country that led its allies to victories in two world wars. Or you may have heard of a country that was a Cold War adversary, an imperialist manipulator, a source of aid, a bully, but nonetheless a source of strength.

Whatever the America you imagined, it was almost certainly not the one you see via the headlines today, a laughingstock, a subject of scorn, and the inspiration not for hopes as before, but for such doubts as have never existed before.

Try to listen with fresh ears to the ridiculous debate that has shut down the U.S. government and brought it within a stone's throw of default. Don't listen as a partisan. Listen objectively and ask: Is there any way to regard the name-calling and the inflexibility as something other than a system that has ceased to be able to fulfill the most rudimentary requirements of governance? It is shameful. There is no acceptable defense or rationale for it.

While the Republican Party certainly bears the great lion's share of the responsibility for this current breakdown of sense and civility, that point requires an attention to the details of American politics few average citizens elsewhere care to muster. The watching world doesn't see the details. They see the nightly news snippets and the tweets. How can they think anything but that this is a political system in extremis, a country likely in decline? (Furthermore, part of the reason this sad display resonates is that it is not the first such breakdown and there is every reason to believe it will not be the last.) 

It is undeniable that the government shutdown will likely be only a momentary lapse. It will end with an agreement to push the hard questions further down the road, much as is likely to be the case later this month when the problem of raising the debt ceiling is also encountered. The big financial problems America faces will not be addressed this year or next year, nor indeed are they likely to be addressed for years to come. That is the sad truth: The faux-heroic stands made by these cardboard statesmen are over trivia and tactics. The worst thing about these hollow spats is that they virtually ensure America will not grapple with the real big issues of our day -- issues of investment, innovation, education, climate, and restored equity or sustainably growth that would be essential to regaining our footing and becoming, once again, the America of our self-image and the world's expectations.

But it's not just that Washington has failed to meet the most basic requirements of competent governance that is harming this country's standing. Consider even the most recent foreign-policy achievements of the Obama administration: the unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons stockpiles and the faint, flicker of hope that the prospect of talks with Iran offers.

While these are certainly sources of cautious hope, it is still impossible not to wonder whether our rivals and adversaries are more willing to negotiate with the United States now because they feel our weakness and think they're likely to get a better deal today than they might have in the past.

This perception of weakness is not just the product of the bouts of dithering and the aimlessness of U.S. foreign policy during the past several months -- our inability to offer up coherent, effective responses or real leadership in the face of crises in Egypt and Syria. It is not just the fact that some of our recent "victories" appear to be unraveling -- Osama bin Laden is dead but extremism is resurgent across the Middle East and Africa, Iraq is rocked daily by violence, our intervention in Libya seems as though it may end up having traded its despot for chaos, and our departure from Afghanistan may likely create an opportunity for those we sought to depose to return to influence.

Our weakened position is not just due to the fact that our growth has slowed and we have only slowly and partially recovered from the great financial crisis of 2008-2009. Nor is it due to the fact that new powers, especially China, seem likely to be the epicenter of the world's fastest economic growth over the decades ahead. It is not just because our students don't perform to the standards of dozens of other nations in math and science. It is not just because our allies in Europe are weakened, nor is it due to the continuing revelations of American violations of the trust of those allies and others thanks to the abuses of our state surveillance apparatus.

Indeed, there are historical trends afoot here as well as self-inflicted wounds. And of those wounds, as we saw just weeks ago in the case of responding to Syria's multiple uses of chemical weapons, perhaps the one that has taken the greatest toll on our ability to lead internationally is the one associated with the gross, costly, and failed overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. The world got the message when the president hesitated to take military action even after his top advisors had agreed we should. They watched and learned as it became clear that neither did the president have the conviction to act as the law and international convention allowed him to, nor did the U.S. Congress have the inclination to support such an action. 

We are burned out and have been burned by our own failures and misjudgments. We are in the wake of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis a nation suffering from PTSD, wincing and reflexively turning away from further risk.

While there has been much talk from top officials in the administration that the U.N. Syria deal was motivated by the "credible threat" posed by the administration, the reality is that more striking than the president's earlier saber rattling were his decision to sheath that sword and the reasons he did so. It is impossible to know which played a greater role in the decision of the Syrians and the Iranians to negotiate, but it must be acknowledged that at least part of that willingness must have been associated with a calculation that this is a weakened president who needs and wants a deal and might be easier to negotiate with. That's not a slam. It's just a fact. Most of the progress toward these talks came after the president hesitated, after he set the precedent of going to Congress, after the U.S. Congress and the American people indicated they didn't want the United States to take military action. Most of the progress that culminated late Friday (in the best few hours of foreign policy the Obama team has had in months and months) came after it was made clearer than at any time in recent history that this is a United States that is just not going to intervene militarily except in the most extreme circumstances. It is only fair to give the administration credit for making progress at a moment when it seemed we had lost our footing altogether. But let's be honest about what's going on here. We are not negotiating from a position of strength. No one expects America's influence to grow in the Middle East in the near- to medium-term. They only expect further withdrawal and deference to others.

Indeed, in most major issues in the region with the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry's very impressive efforts on the Israel-Palestine peace talks, the initiative has rested with others rather than the United States. In Egypt, when we hesitated to acknowledge that the end of Mohamed Morsy's regime was indeed in our interests, it was the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis who stepped up to write the checks needed to help stabilize the situation. In Syria, the balance of power among opposition groups is being tipped by the Turks and Qataris on one side and the region's moderate states on the other (with the latter group frustrated that the United States has been reluctant to call out our alleged friends in Ankara and Doha for their support of extremists). In Iraq, our role has withered to irrelevance as it soon will in Afghanistan. In Asia, they see us as deflated at home and, to the extent we are engaged anywhere, distracted by the Middle East. In the rest of our own hemisphere, we are viewed as disconnected, remote, and dismissive of the issues most important to them as in the case of Brazil's recently articulated concerns over NSA activities targeting them.

One D.C. analyst noted that the current shutdown comes at a time when every party is seen as weak: The Republican speaker of the House does not control his own caucus, the Senate minority leader is facing a primary challenge, the Democratic Senate majority leader does little but joust with the House, and the president seems not to engage except rhetorically. Congress now has a 10 percent approval rating. According to the most recent polls, only a modest fraction of voters support either the Republican or the Democratic conduct of themselves in this standoff. But going from weakness to weakness is not merely a domestic trait of the United States right now. It is also a hallmark of our forays on the world stage.

That can change. The wounds can heal. We can regain our footing. We know this because even after mishandling Syria for so long, even after decades of tense relations with Iran, when openings occur, people respond quickly to American engagement. We are still the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. National reinvention is built into our DNA, is anticipated in our Constitution. And if my trip to the U.N. General Assembly meetings last week reinforced one message above all others, it was that there is still an appetite for leadership from us. But such leadership requires not just those who would call themselves leaders. It requires the vision to set national interests above politics and the will to assume the risks leadership demands -- including the risks associated with collaborating with those with whom we must work at home if we are ever again to achieve the standing previous generations have earned worldwide.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

What's New Is Nuance

Why Iran may just be playing smiling for dollars.

Handshake or no handshake, Hasan Rouhani owes Barack Obama a debt of gratitude. That is because Rouhani is the president of the Iran that American sanctions made happen. After listening to him field questions from American media luminaries (and some not-so-luminous types like myself) for over an hour this morning, it was striking that, as the meeting closed, the biggest question of all remained the one posed by his very presence, his tenor, and the message he sought to deliver: What kind of change does he represent from the intemperate, combative, rogue Iran of the Ahmadinejad years?

Rouhani is no transformational figure ... at least not yet. He is a self-defined moderate and what he has done during his months in office, hype aside, is to focus somewhat on adjusting the tone typically offered by his cartoonish predecessor. The political North Star in Iran remains the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He sets the direction for the country and determines precisely how much leash each president will be given. Nonetheless, while Iran is far from a democracy it is a country that contains potent democratic forces. In the last election the country's voters sent a clear message that among the carefully selected candidates the ruling clerics allowed to appear on the ballot, the one voters wanted was the one who had the most chance to repair relations with the outside world as well as end the sanctions that were crushing their economy and making millions of Iranians' lives miserable. 

While the mostly off-the-record exchange with Rouhani focused on headline issues -- like why there wasn't a meeting between Obama and Rouhani here in New York or what the next step would be with regard to the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the world, or whether or not the new Iranian president really accepted the existence of the Holocaust -- the subtext throughout was that the newly elected head of state had a strong desire to do what he could to restore relations between Iran and the world in order to open up his country to more commerce and spark some degree of economic recovery. To the extent there has been an Iranian charm offensive here at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meetings it might be characterized as "smiling for dollars."

Of course, the secret to getting the economy going again is lifting the international sanctions associated with stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program -- a program Rouhani (like his predecessor) still unconvincingly asserts does not exist. When Rouhani noted that it was the White House that reached out to Iran to stage a possible grip-and-grin moment between Obama and Rouhani, he added that there wasn't enough time to develop a plan for a follow-on to the discussion. (That will be the work of Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when they meet later this week.) But rest assured the plan Iran wants is one that will measure progress in steps to ease the relentless economic pressure the Obama team has put on the Iranians since they took office in 2008.

On another front, while Rouhani's discussion of Syria and other issues at UNGA was off the record, it did underscore a growing sense I've gotten from talking with regional leaders and representatives of governments actively engaged in Syria this week that, as improbable as a deal between the United States and Iran may be, the thinking of key parties has evolved in interesting ways. While formulations change depending on who you talk to, Bashar al-Assad's friends may well be preparing to throw him under the bus -- with the enthusiastic support of the rest of the international community. Some characterize this as leaving the big decisions about the future of Syrian leadership to the ballot box. One pro-Western regional leader suggested that in the wake of a Geneva deal and a political settlement, Assad would go but that the Russians could help orchestrate picking a new Alawite face to replace him. In each of my many conversations on the subject, the punch line was the same: no one seems to be making keeping Assad a critical element of a deal. It seems as though he may have gained a momentary respite as a consequence of the current negotiations, but if -- as those involved hope -- those negotiations lead away from "a chemical weapons deal to a Geneva deal to elections" they will also lead to his departure. As far as the Russians are concerned, this end result may be tolerable provided they can also count on his successor to be a friend in Damascus. 

If Assad recognizes this, of course, it may make him less inclined to be serious about negotiations and more inclined to play them out or even delay them, to buy him some time. (For what, I am not sure. This cannot end well for him unless he considers it a victory to spend his life ping-ponging around in exile like Baby Doc Duvalier and other similar ne'er-do-wells.) Predicting Assad's motivations moving forward is just one of the many, many challenges associated with the Syria crisis that makes any deal ultimately look tough -- from the number of combatants to the fact that this is not a zero-sum for Syria's president alone. As quid pro quo for Assad's ultimate ouster, it also seems reasonable to expect, based on UNGA corridor buzz, that the Russians, Iranians, and others will demand that al Qaeda, jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and other Sunni Islamic extremists who have flowed into Syria since the war began, depart the country as well.

This in turn further complicates matters. Because in the eyes of respected long-time regional leaders with good relations with the West, six to 12 more months of fighting may see the strength of the extremists rise to a point where they cannot effectively be defeated. Intervening against them when they were weak -- 18 months or a year ago -- would have given us a much greater chance of success. Now, with each week that passes, they grow stronger. This is one reason why the calls for the United States to much more actively push back on Turkish and Qatari support for the extremists have grown so urgent. There is a real sense that the president of the United States has a critical behind-the-scenes role to play here but that it is one he has shirked. (One leader suggested that the White House itself seemed clearly split on this issue even today.) 

It is here that we see that Obama and Rouhani are not just connected by their missed photo op or by the fact that it was Obama's tough sanctions that helped create the conditions for Rouhani's election. Both leaders also illustrate the profound effects modest shifts made by key players who are being driven by domestic politics can have on Mideast regional dynamics. 

Hasan Rouhani is not the antithesis of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is not a radical departure from a radical voice. He is modulating the message of a society whose true political power center has hardly changed its position in decades. He is a new face but mostly he is a nuance. The same might be said of Obama. He has, as many have noted, supported many Bush policies, actually turned up the volume of drone, special ops and cyber activity, turned up the pressure via sanctions, and maintained the traditional U.S. ties with Israel, etc. Even his decision to leave Iraq and Afghanistan is one that had its origins in the Bush years. No, in fairness, Obama isn't a transformational figure either, so much as he is making modest changes, leaning back slightly where his predecessor once leaned in further. He will still reserve the right to strike at Iran's nuclear programs if nothing else works and to strike at Syria if chemical weapons talks fail. But the nuance is that he will hesitate more, act in a more limited way, and seek political cover at home and abroad more assiduously. The core policy remains the same -- the speed and degree to which he implements is all that will change.

Except of course, as we have seen, such nuances make all the difference in the world. On the one hand they shift America from being viewed, depending on where you are sitting, as either a stalwart or a bully in the region, to being seen as disengaging, more hesitant, or less likely to act. It is a shift that has had high-level Israelis no longer wondering aloud whether Obama will act alongside them to strike Iran but rather whether he would even step in to support Israel the day after such an attack if the Iranians were about to strike them.

This is not a moot point. While Iran and the United States shift slightly, some in the region defy even such adjustments and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu seems to be one of them, warning Americans against falling into the "honey pot" of the Iranian charm offensive. And the Iranians, while their leader may now acknowledge the Holocaust (while coyly leaving open questions about its scope) and while he may send out Rosh Hashanah wishes or bring along the Iranian parliament's representative for the Jews of that country to press events (like he did today), it is clear that the official Iranian position is still to dispute and deny the legitimacy of the Israeli state.

The calculation that must be made now is what the consequences of these measured shifts by the leaders of the United States and Iran may mean. Even after all the media roundtables and hoopla, we are still left with many more questions than answers. Is there a greater opening for genuinely constructive talks on the Iranian nuclear program? On a lasting political settlement for Syria? To what extent do these openings come primarily from newfound Iranian openness or from a strategically thought out American desire to engage rather than fight? Or do they come more from a momentary Iranian weakness brought about by economic stress or from the fact that the war-weary and war-wary American people and U.S. Congress have taken a lastingly more isolationist turn having said "enough" to the president? How will these changes, whether they come from relative strength or weakness, impact the outcomes that may be engineered or encountered? (It is my sense that the Iranians and the Russians may both be open to pursuing negotiations now, at least as much because they feel a United States that is "leaning away" may be open to a better deal as because of any U.S. saber-rattling re: Syria.) And finally, of course, there is the longer term question as to how all these changes may affect the broader calculus throughout a region in which a U.S.-Iranian hegemonic proxy war has been so central for so long that any U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would have profound implications for all the allies and enemies of each of the countries.

The primary conclusion I can draw from this week's meetings in New York and in particular from the postures of Obama and Rouhani -- these two presidents whose fates may be so intertwined -- is that lingering questions aside, the United States and Iran will both attempt to explore the current shift in mood because it is in the immediate interest of both countries and both leaders to do so. The problem for the United States is that slow, incremental progress alone would be a win-win for the Iranians -- buying them time to defuse their economic time bomb even as they also buy time to develop the capability to create bombs of a much different sort. This is a potential trap that President Obama must avoid. His sanctions may have helped create this opening, but they are only half of a strategy. He must have an endgame, real resolve, healthy skepticism, and a hard timetable or the moment he helped engineer will be lost and fears of America's gradually shrinking influence in the region will be compounded.

TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images