The Power Paradox

Why America can only be great by being unexceptional.

The White House is mixing it up. Usually after commando raids against terrorist targets, the leaks flow like a fine triumphalist wine. We hear just enough detail of high-level secret meetings to emphasize that everything that worked was actually the president's idea. We may get a photo or two indicating that while considering the raids everyone was looking extremely serious.

But that's not what happened in the wake of the raids this weekend. Rather, the response to the U.S. commando operations in Libya and Somalia reminded me a bit of the movie The Right Stuff, when after a post-splashdown screw-up that resulted in the sinking of his Mercury spacecraft, Gus Grissom is denied the pomp and parades that his colleagues had enjoyed.

While this weekend's raids didn't exactly "screw the pooch," to use the movie's descriptive term, they did not go according to plan. According to reports, the raid in Somalia on al-Shabab encountered heavier resistance than anticipated and presented a much higher risk of civilian casualties than expected. Post-raid reports indicate that faulty intelligence may have been to blame. The raid in Libya that led the United States to grab accused embassy-bombing operative Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, better known as Abu Anas al-Libi, produced political blowback ranging from a post-raid statement from the Libyan government that the mission was carried out without its knowledge to the loud criticism of influential Islamic groups in the country that the United States had violated Libyan sovereignty to subsequent assertions by Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan that "Libyan citizens should be judged in Libya, and Libya does not surrender its sons." (Further fallout from the raid came Thursday as extremists briefly kidnapped the Libyan prime minister then released him, giving the U.S. capture of Libi as the reason for their action.)

The blowback triggered the only orchestrated leaks associated with the raid -- comments from the most influential people in Washington, the famed unnamed "senior American officials," who claimed the United States had "tacit approval" for the raid from the Libyans. This wonderful euphemism raises many possibilities. Just what is a diplomatic wink and a nod? Did they raise non-objection objections to ensure the deniability that happened later? Did they simply agree to look the other way? Or did the U.S. government take a page out of Ross's book from Friends and simply suggest we were "on a break"? 

Of course, as the president himself has asserted as recently as his U.N. General Assembly speech, the United States believes that it alone among nations has the right to go "on a break" from international law whenever it suits us. This is the fundamental dimension of American exceptionalism, born of a comment by de Tocqueville about the "exceptional" nature of the American people and more recently made popular by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his controversial New York Times op-ed attacking the American notion that we can play by our own set of rules.

Despite the storm of indignation that Putin's piece generated from exceptional Americans everywhere, as my friend Tom Friedman of the New York Times might say, just because Putin said it doesn't mean it wasn't true.

Exceptionalism is contrary to the spirit of the U.S. Constitution and the ideas that led to the founding of the country. If there is one lesson of human civilization, it is that equality under the law needs to apply to nations as well as people or else chaos and injustice ensue. This past weekend's raids were more damaging not because the outcome of one was unsuccessful but because the outcome of the other was. If countries feel they can swoop in and snatch up bad guys anywhere, whenever, and however it suited them, the world would quickly fall into a state of permanent war.

It is ironic that Barack Obama has become the avatar of exceptionalism. As a campaigner and even as a president, he has sometimes seemed resistant to the idea -- even when he seemed to embrace it during his first trip abroad after becoming president when he said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." It was a dodge designed to drain the idea of its odiousness. That is typically done (by academics as well by politicians like the president) by focusing on the noble values that set us apart.

The defenses of this idea founder on the hard truths of what the United States justifies with our argument that we are freer or that we promote more equality or whatever other qualities we might list (in a self-congratulatory way) on our national Facebook profile. But then we develop drone programs that we launch against friends and enemies alike with or without their permission. Or we launch commando raids to grab bad guys. Or we assemble a global surveillance apparatus that knows no limits, violating the sovereignty and privacy of even close allies as if they had no rights at all.

It is one thing to be proud of those qualities that have enabled America to create opportunity and ensure freedom for so many. It is quite another to argue that our success in framing a great legal system on a constitution that legitimately should be a model to the world allows us to ignore the laws and rights of others.

Every nation, the defenders argue, has a right to self-defense. But every nation also faces threats of many sorts. There are bad actors and organizations small and large and even other nations that pose physical, cyber, economic, and other threats to virtually every nation on Earth. Were any threat of any scale allowed to be the justification for the violation of another nation's sovereignty, the concept of sovereignty would evaporate in a puff of smoke before our very eyes and surely chaos would ensue.

That is why, for all but the most egregious threats, nations must rely on international law and cooperation with other authorities as the mechanisms by which they defuse or manage such threats -- grabbing wrongdoers and keeping them from committing further destructive acts. In the wake of the national trauma of 9/11, however, we fell into a dangerous rabbit hole of dubious logic. Since we had seen one major terrorist attack by one nonstate actor that had catastrophic consequences that shook the nation (much as an attack from a sovereign nation might have done), then, the thinking went, all terrorists must potentially pose a similar threat and, therefore, the right to self-defense gives us a free pass to get "all exceptional" on bad guys or data networks everywhere.

Grave threats justify self-defense under international law. Responding to them is not, therefore, exceptionalism. It is actually the opposite, working within a common set of rules. The trick is defining such threats very narrowly. This error of judgment and logical slippery slope are then compounded by the exceptionalist idea that all other nations and systems are somehow less worthy of respect than ours.

Having been wanted for the Uganda and Kenya bombings in 1998, Libi was clearly a very bad actor. But it did not serve U.S. interests to go into a country in which we had ostensibly militarily intervened in order to help restore the rule of law to only then violate those laws and the rights of that country and to send the kind of message that will create more Libis than the raid could possibly have taken into custody.

In a seemingly unrelated coda that was also rife with irony, the White House let slip that it is going to withhold certain aid from the Egyptian government because of its origins in a coup and, presumably, its post-coup efforts to restore stability to that country. Set aside for a moment the bizarre timing of this announcement. Set aside for a moment the fact that literally every major ally the United States has in the region from the Israelis to the Saudis to the Jordanians to the Kuwaitis to the Emiratis to the Bahrainis surely object to it. Set aside the fact that other aid will keep flowing, thus sending yet another confusingly mixed message to the Egyptians. The decision also underscores that the United States is selectively punishing a country that has historically been an ally for trying to reduce the threat posed (and demonstrated) by Islamic fundamentalists while failing to similarly go after those who have supported fundamentalist troublemakers in places like Libya -- which is precisely the reason Libi was found there. Who are those people we choose not to squeeze? The Qataris come to mind.

During the U.N. meetings in New York, one smart regional leader said the Qataris were supporting the fundamentalist push in Libya because they saw it, with its hydrocarbon resources, as a potential "milking cow" for the Muslim Brotherhood and similar movements throughout the Middle East. These are the same Qataris that have supported fundamentalists (as have the Turks) in Syria ... and where once again, we have refused to truly read them the riot act even as we beat up on those going after the fundamentalists.

Exceptionalism is one of the great flaws of U.S. foreign policy exacerbated in the post-9/11 era. But it has been compounded by the mistake of confusing tactics for strategies -- of allowing the pursuit of a few terrorists, which generates headlines when successful (and is swept under the rug when not), to distract us from forming the kind of coherent strategy that advancing our interests in the Middle East and across the Islamic world warrants. We grab a terrorist but inflame the Street that is giving birth to the next generation of terrorists. We punish an ally for acting extralegally even as we do so as a matter of policy -- and fail to realize the terribly mixed and counterproductive message we are sending to those who could help us achieve our greater goals. As a consequence, while touting a sequence of high-profile wins against individuals or the hierarchy of groups like al Qaeda, we have watched as new threats have proliferated to the point that they are greater than ever before and our standing has deteriorated to reach new lows. (Ongoing idiocy in Washington on domestic issues doesn't help.)

In short, we have become the incoherent exceptionalists. Not just a giant stomping on the rights of others and seeking to be hailed for it, but one doing so in a way that systematically undercuts the characteristics that have made us great and weakens us at the same time.

Adriano Ranieri/Getty Images

David Rothkopf

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.