Waiting in the Wings

As America's star power dims, who will take center stage?

When an actor in a show, even the star, freezes and forgets his lines during a performance, it's up to the others on the stage to break the uncomfortable silence and try to move the play forward. They might stumble or appear awkward, but the alternative -- to let the action grind to a halt -- is much worse. The audience waits, watching to see how and if the story will continue and at whose initiative. This is as true on the world stage as in the most remote regional theater.

This weekend I had the opportunity to sit with a group of well-known Egyptian actors and producers, the top filmmakers from a country in crisis. When they heard I was an American from Washington, they began to vent. "How could Washington have turned their back on us?" they asked. How could we have failed to see that the June revolution -- 30 million people coming together to stop a man who was destroying the country -- was, in the words of one actress, "a miracle." Why, she asked, had we failed to challenge the leader deposed in that revolution, Mohamed Morsy, while he was systematically undercutting the fragile democracy he was entrusted to help build? Why would we not call out the Muslim Brotherhood for its violence? For the threat it posed to the entire Middle East?

"We were your friends," the actress emoted. "We loved you. Why did you turn away?"

"You're asking the wrong questions," I said. "I understand your frustration, but you can't afford to be so focused on the past. You can't afford to ask why America is doing what it is doing or not doing. If you want to recapture American support and the support of the world, you have to make a new story yourselves, create a more positive narrative that says that the June revolution was a turning point for the better."

Another guest at the dinner table, an American who is working with the Egyptian government to help it shape its message linked to these issues, jumped in and said, "You have one thing you must focus on. In a matter of weeks, no more than a few months, you will have to produce the kind of result on the constitutional referendum that sends a clear message. Fifty-one percent in favor will not do. You need 70 or 75 percent support for the new constitution to have a clear mandate, for the new government to stand up to the opponents who will try to undermine it."

Others at the table nodded. They understood this central truth. Because for those with hopes for Egyptian democracy, there should not be two things on the agenda. There can only be one: Create meaningful, lasting change that proves that reforms are in the name of Egypt's people -- which in this case means producing a national constitution that is seen to be a genuine manifestation of the will of the Egyptian people.

In a country where the only real organizations with the capacity to effectively organize nationwide action are the military and the Brotherhood, this challenge is greater still. And the political infrastructure that such a campaign requires just isn't in place to support it. So such a campaign must be built and energized with a kind of single-mindedness that, frankly, the interim government has yet to sufficiently motivate or mobilize.

That said, however, there is something happening in Egypt today that is remarkable, and it's sending a signal not just to the volatile region that is home to that country, but to the world. America, on the grand stage, may have forgotten its lines and gone all deer-in-the-headlights at just the wrong moment, but others are stepping up and moving the story forward in positive ways. Even though the United States failed to be tough with Morsy when it could have and should have, the constructive heavy-lifting is being done by others.

The Saudis, the Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis are working together to provide the current regime with resources. But they are not just throwing money at the problem, pumping cash into a central bank account. They are methodically selecting big visible projects that are creating jobs and helping the wounded economy in crucial areas like infrastructure investment. This sends a message to Egyptian voters that the new way may be better for them, producing a better future.

Naturally, the Gulf states are not doing this for entirely charitable reasons. They view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. They clearly want to stop it. They are also writing checks to cover Egyptian military arms purchases for which the United States has halted funding. But international actors act in their self-interest. And, geopolitics, like physics or a play in which the lead actor forgets his lines, abhors a vacuum.

So what is happening in Egypt, like what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East and around the world, is that once-secondary players are assuming new roles -- roles that would have been hard to imagine either during the bipolar years of the Cold War or the brief unipolar moment that followed. In many places -- Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind -- what will fill the void left behind by the United States is likely to exacerbate the mess we helped create. But in other areas (and Egypt may be one of them), if a new constitution is actually produced, is seen as advancing the country toward democracy, and is then widely embraced, it will send the healthy message that regional solutions can work.

Of course, America has not shuffled off the stage entirely. We have simply paused at an awkward moment. The world's sole superpower is not simply going to cease to play a role. But that role will inevitably, it seems, be somewhat smaller. We will be more circumspect in our actions, more reluctant to take risks. We have been strained by our own overreach internationally and by our mismanagement and political dysfunction at home, and we will move more slowly and take more limited actions. More often than before, we will stand by as others step up and find their own solutions. (All this, of course, as we and others continue to debate just how big the U.S. role should be, what risks we should take, and how we should lead.)

Meanwhile, we will play a guiding or catalytic role where we can in select situations worldwide, no doubt frustrating many who are used to a stronger helping hand and letting someone else (us) do the heavy lifting. But even light-touch American intervention can still be useful, as hinted at this week with Secretary of State John Kerry's constructive brief visit to Egypt in which he noted that the interim government is making progress toward democracy. He did not make the recent U.S. error of overemphasizing the trappings of democracy -- which are often used as covers as they were by Morsy for intensely anti-democratic activities. Kerry focused as he (and we) should on democratic values and on the importance of continuing progress in their service. It was helpful and timely.

As a consequence of these shifts, the world is going to have to get used to a new cast of featured players, many assuming more prominent roles than before in regional theaters of action. Indeed, recently, we have seen other examples of what this new world might look like. Whether they are homegrown trade initiatives like the Pacific Alliance in Latin America, or the German-Brazilian initiative in the U.N. to rein in surveillance abuses worldwide (though admittedly, the United States has had an inadvertently prominent role in that drama, wearing, unfortunately, a black hat), or the efforts among Asian countries to come up with a new regional architecture without much constructive involvement from the United States, or even the Russian initiative to address the chemical weapons issue in Syria, there are signs that a more subdued or hesitant America will leave open the door to new, more diverse collaborative processes for shaping the world of tomorrow.

That is not to simply accept American retreat. As the richest and most powerful nation in the world, we have a vital role to play. Nor does noting the shift to a more pluralistic international system minimize the importance of the U.S. role when we do put our shoulder to the wheel as we have in Israel and Palestine, belatedly in Syria on chemical weapons, or with regard to sanctions against Iran.

But even in those cases, the goal of the initiatives is -- let's be honest -- to produce outcomes in which the United States can be less active, less engaged. To some extent, what we are trying to do is make the world safe not for democracy, as Woodrow Wilson would have had it, but for American withdrawal. And frankly, given some of the mistakes we have made recently, it is hard not to wonder, unfamiliar and uncomfortable as it may be for everyone to accept, whether we might not sometimes get better outcomes from responsible leadership by actors other than the United States.

That said, while the world will get along just fine if the United States sometimes takes a supporting role on the grand stage of global affairs, encouraging others to take the lead, there is a caveat. And that of course is that we don't screw things up in the role we do play. Again, the example of Egypt comes to mind. Leave it to our regional allies, virtually all of whom -- Arabs and Israelis alike -- support giving the current government a chance, to take matters into their own hands. But don't then start punishing that government in ways that we didn't and should have in the case of Morsy.

As the great star of the global stage of the past century hesitates, pausing perhaps to reconsider its role, we cannot and should not expect the world to stop, nor can we or our friends around the world spend too much time lamenting the degree to which the present is not like the past or our own ideals of what a new new world order ought to look like. Problems need solving now. In the end, in places like Egypt, it is homegrown actors from that country and its neighbors who are going to have to continue to step into the limelight and shine and do it now, or we will have much darker outcomes to contemplate in the very near future.


David Rothkopf

Mr. President, We Can Handle the Truth

Why it's time for the White House to get ahead of the NSA scandal.

It has been revealing to watch the White House chase the NSA surveillance story. At first, when Edward Snowden's revelations broke, White House officials sought to make the story about him. Snowden was a traitor and the issue was how quickly he could be brought to justice.

As the first wave of revelations about wholesale U.S. harvesting of data and phone records broke, they maintained this stance. The administration still focused on portraying itself as the victim of a betrayal. Again, White House spokespeople did not address the ethics of what the U.S. government had been doing, instead either diverting to the rationale for the scope of such wide-ranging surveillance operations or offering the excuse that running an intelligence system with more than half a million people naturally comes with operational security risks and, inevitably, there are contractors of dubious background like Snowden, who receive top-secret clearance.

When Snowden sought asylum, the United States made the story about the other governments that were collaborating with the young rogue fugitive. Tensions rose with Russia when it gave Snowden a temporary and then a longer-term home. Latin American nations that offered or considered offering Snowden asylum were framed as pariahs. We even collaborated with allies in Europe to ground the plane of Bolivia's president in the hopes of nabbing the former contractor.

As the story then spread and countries like Brazil and Mexico were discovered to be the targets of espionage, the White House's response publicly and in private to those governments was "everybody does it." Again, no discussion was made of why we were spying on these friends or, if assertions of spying against commercial targets like Petrobras were true, what the rationale was for this kind of economic espionage. After all, the initial arguments were that this unprecedentedly massive program was to protect us from terrorists and other enemies. Was there a hidden Petrobras-al Qaeda connection that we didn't know about?

More recently, the White House's reaction has revealed the double standard we have when it comes to surveilling our friends. If Brazil or Mexico is offended, that's one thing, more easily shrugged off apparently. But when it was revealed that Germany, one of our closest allies, was also targeted (triggering a firestorm of anger in that country ... compounded by anger in also-targeted France and Spain), we treated it differently. These particular complaints now warranted a different kind of response. In this instance, both public and private assurances were given to senior German officials by both National Security Advisor Susan Rice and later President Barack Obama. The newly adopted argument was that the president had no idea this was going on and that it was stopped.

This approach was subsequently challenged in stories in the German magazine Bild and in the Los Angeles Times, leading to more awkwardness for the White House. Now we weren't just spying on the Germans and others -- we were lying to them. And the White House was asking the American people to accept ignorance as its excuse. What a fine choice. Either the president didn't know about programs he should have been aware of, or he knew and not only OK'd the overreach but then lied about it.

This astonishingly lame response -- called "pathetic" by the New York Times editorial board, a group that is not seen as reflexively anti-Obama -- was then compounded by an idea floated to the New York Times by the National Security Council: that the president was considering reforms that would ban eavesdropping on presidents and prime ministers of allies. Quite apart from raising the tough question of who our "real" allies are or defining who is fair game for spying, this policy tweak is not reform but spin. What if there were 20 allies who qualified? Does this mean we solve the NSA surveillance overreach problem by exempting a small, pre-selected group out of hundreds of millions from the data and phone-records eavesdropping and warehousing efforts of the U.S. government? It misses the point that there are worse things about this program than spying on the leaders of friendly nations.

The core issues of the gross and excessive surveillance associated with the NSA revelations are not about spying on friends. Wholesale harvesting of the emails and phone records of Americans is a dangerous departure from the principles of limiting government access to private information that has existed since the beginnings of the republic. Creating back doors by which Americans can be eavesdropped on via collecting overseas data resources is another worrisome dimension of these programs. Serially violating the privacy of tens of millions of foreign citizens is another. So is the suggestion that the threat of terrorism warrants such sweeping violations. (It is a real threat, but it has been abused to justify overreach. Our fears have once again gotten the better of us -- as they did when they were used to justify wrongheaded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or mistaken and abusive programs like the Patriot Act or the use of torture or the serial violation of sovereignty wrought via our drone programs.)

Stepping away from the moral, ethical, and strategic concerns raised by such programs, there are serious questions to be asked about the practical management of intelligence programs. Were the benefits derived from such programs worth the risks they apparently entailed? Their discovery had to be seen by a prudent intelligence community senior officer as a risk in a system in which the number of people with top-secret clearance exceeded half a million. What possible tangible benefit came from listening in on a Brazilian oil company? What advantage was gained from listening in on German Chancellor Angela Merkel? And is it worth the fallout that this scandal is producing?

That fallout is not, the White House must now see, purely the political or diplomatic embarrassment it has generated. One industry group has estimated that the costs to U.S. companies likely to get frozen out of foreign tech deals because they are seen as suspect or too vulnerable to the NSC might run as high as $35 billion. Worse, this entire episode will be used by foreign governments to turn back the tide of globalization and increased access to information (and the democratizing forces engendered by it) that the information revolution was bringing. It will be an excuse for countersurveillance programs, restrictive Internet governance regimes, censorship, and deepening cyberconflict. (This move toward a fragmentation of the Internet into national regimes, some imbued with barriers to entry or exit, is what I called cyber-nationalism in my FP column last week.)

These are reversals to American interests overseas that are far more damaging than anything terrorists could have done to us. Just as Iraq was. Just as Afghanistan was. Just as Abu Ghraib was. Just as the Patriot Act was. We are becoming victims not of terrorists but of terror, of our own fears and our emotional, ill-considered overreactions to them.

For the White House, it is now time to stop chasing this story and get ahead of it. It is time to say, without acknowledging secret programs or compromising security, "We were wrong. We went too far. We reserve the right to defend ourselves using all reasonable means at our disposal. But we can't do so in ways that compromise the values, alliances, and trust that are also vital pillars of our strength."

It is time therefore to welcome Sen. Dianne Feinstein's calls for a top-to-bottom review of intelligence programs. It is time to embrace emerging congressional initiatives to limit data warehousing and wholesale privacy violations. And behind the scenes, it is time to do what should have been done at the outset at the highest levels. The president and his top aides should identify our national security goals, the objectives we seek to advance, and risks we seek to mitigate and then determine what role the intelligence community ought to play in advancing those goals. This will mean setting parameters determined by our resource limitations and by our laws and by our values. It will also mean carefully weighing downsides versus returns and consequently reining in our intelligence community -- not out of lack of appreciation for what it does but precisely because we value it and the people within it and we do not seek to put them at unnecessary risk in pursuit of programs that should not have been undertaken in the first place.

Alex Wong/Getty Images