Voice

Therapy for the Self-Hating Superpower

Snap out of it, America. You're good enough, smart enough -- who cares if people don't like you?

America is in decline. America is broke. America is unwilling to lead. America has alienated the world. America is fat. America is addicted to sugar, reality television, and hearing itself speak.

Washington is dysfunctional. Washington is corrupt. Washington is full of liars, con men, and self-promoters who prove that there is no limit to how far people can go in life if they have the right PAC spending dough behind them.

Americans are a violent people. They are narcissistic. They are misogynistic. They are puritanical, hyped up on religiosity, and turning against science, math, and history.

Americans don't read. They don't work hard anymore. The American dream is dead. Today's children will be the first generation who must learn to expect less, not more, than their parents had.

For the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the Earth, having ideas like these bouncing around the Internet and laced into talk-show banter sure does suggest that America has a nasty self-image problem. Call it body-politic-dysmorphia. Call it the self-hating superpower disease. Call the problem whatever you want -- so long as you recognize the country needs to deal with it.

What America needs is an intervention. Not another overseas intervention; it has tried those, and they only accelerated the descent into a collective neurosis that has Americans behaving like they're channeling Woody Allen.

No, what the country needs is a good, strong domestic intervention, along the lines of what someone would do for a self-destructive friend or family member. Americans all gather in someone's living room -- Jay Z and Beyoncé probably have space for everyone at their house -- and start telling some hard truths in the hopes that the country will snap out of this downward psychological spiral it is in.

The intervention needs to show that this mopey, downcast Eeyore of a global power is actually doing much better than it thinks it is. The facts suggest that, come the end of this century, perhaps the only things that will be the same on planet Earth are that America will still be seen as the richest, most powerful nation around -- and the world will still be complaining about it.

Of all the world's major developed economies, America has best recovered from the financial crisis, showing again its resilience and ability to reinvent itself. Thanks in no small part to this reality, North American partners -- that is, Canada and Mexico -- are enjoying simultaneous periods of promise. NAFTA is working, big time. For example, Texas exports almost as much to Mexico as the United States exports to China. Integrated supply chains are fueling this, and more integration of the countries' economies is inevitable. That's all very good, especially because, when there is growth below the border, Mexico's youthful, energetic population is less inclined to head north (and more likely to be reliable consumers of U.S. products back home).

Moreover, cheap energy, especially natural gas, is already driving investment flows to the United States. That will make it easier for the country to compete in key sectors, such as petrochemicals and other similarly energy-intensive industries, while also lowering emissions. Hitting President Barack Obama's new goal of reducing emissions by almost a third should be a relative snap. (This, in part, is thanks to the fact that overall emissions have already fallen 10 percent since 2005, the start date from which the cuts are to be calculated.)

Critically, too, the U.S. budget deficit is shrinking. The total for the first eight months of this fiscal year is the smallest since the same time period in 2008, and the overall deficit for 2014 is projected to be about half a trillion dollars -- a big fall from $1.4 trillion in 2009. The country is certainly not out of the woods, but it is trending in a direction that makes deficit spending sustainable.

There is concern that budget pressures will result in America cutting back its defense spending in some quarters and that America will therefore become weaker internationally. In their article about American power in this issue of Foreign Policy, for instance, Elbridge Colby and Paul Lettow fret that the U.S. has already weakened itself by cutting $600 billion from planned defense spending over the next decade. But that probably won't happen, given Washington's penchant for the status quo on such things. And even if it did, that would only be a 10 percent cut (based on current spending). Given that today America spends as much as the next 10 countries (ranked by defense budgets) combined, the number will still be pretty darn beefy.

Some argue that, regardless of what's happening with defense and deficits, America is losing its will to lead in the world. There are plenty of well-founded criticisms of the current administration's foreign policy -- and I've aired them before -- but the reality is that the country is in a typical retrenchment that follows major overseas military involvement. And historically, after World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, America has re-engaged within a decade or two. My guess is that, no matter who wins the presidency in 2016 (Hillary Clinton? Jeb Bush?), she or he will be more inclined to have America play its traditional leadership role. And many of America's allies and other actors will welcome that re-engagement in ways that would have been impossible to imagine after the fiasco in Iraq. After all, global institutions and alliances require an engaged United States.

In terms of new technologies that will propel economic growth -- 3-D printing, biotechnology, and more -- no country is better prepared to be at the forefront of R&D. This is because of America's system of higher education, the size of its economic market, Americans' predisposition to inventiveness, and their willingness to embrace change. On top of that, old factors that made America strong in the past -- from being surrounded by oceans to the domestic and regional struggles faced by key rivals -- are holding steady.

In short, there's every reason to expect that the 21st century might also be seen as an American century.

Can the country screw it up? It doesn't take a long look at Congress or America's failing infrastructure or its lousy math and science test scores to know that this is a possibility. And to be sure, myriad problems big and small need fixing. However, perhaps America's best character trait is that it has learned to grow and recover without too much "help" from the government. States and localities, as well as the private sector, are sources of much innovation. And sooner or later, the government always comes to realize that there are some roles only it can play, and even Washington steps up to bat.

So it's time to intervene, to set aside the gloom and doom of the chattering classes and face facts -- the good kind. Sure, there will always be declinists. Even a robust America will allow them to continue to peddle their slogans. Because in the richest and most powerful nation in the history of the Earth, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there will always be those who think that the only way to go is down.

Illustration by Matt Chase

COLUMN

Doing Nothing Is Now out of the Question

Obama may finally have changed his calculus on Syria -- but is his plan for the U.S. to train rebels two years too late?

Mass atrocities do not intrinsically threaten world peace, much less Western interests. The genocide in Rwanda did not, nor did the mass murders in Sierra Leone, Liberia, or Darfur. The slaughter in the former Yugoslavia did, which is why the West intervened in Bosnia. Those of us who favor the doctrine known as "the responsibility to protect" wish it were otherwise, but with rare exceptions (Libya), it is not.

Syria has always been a special case. The collapse of a country in the middle of an explosive neighborhood automatically threatened American interests. But it wasn't clear, at least at the outset, whether openly siding with the rebels was more likely to stabilize or destabilize that neighborhood. As Hillary Clinton writes in her memoirs, "The risks of both action and inaction were high." It's probably fair to say that those who believed in the moral case for supporting the rebels found good reason to assert that inaction would harm American national interests rather than otherwise. Clinton and other senior officials made that case to President Barack Obama in 2012, and Obama turned them down. He thought inaction better served American interests.

Now, apparently, Obama has come around. Last week, he asked Congress to authorize $500 million to train and equip vetted rebel groups, as Clinton had wanted him to do in 2012.

What's changed? The definitive collapse in January of peace talks with Russia and Syria proved beyond any doubt that diplomacy, by itself, was not going to solve the problem. And the stunning spread of the apocalyptic jihadi group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) -- and in recent days as just the Islamic State -- has radically changed the balance of America's national interest in Syria. President Bashar al-Assad's war on his own people created a vacuum of authority that ISIS has filled, and ISIS now threatens the United States as Assad's barrel bombs never did. Perhaps Obama has reflected that the advisors who thought that the risks of inaction outweighed the risks of action were right.

But is it the right course now? If Syria matters because it has become the frontier of the war on terror, is helping the rebels wrestle Assad to the negotiating table the right way to fight that war?

There's a very serious argument that it's not. If the country is an impossibly fragmented state, as Syria scholar Joshua Landis has argued in Foreign Policy, then helping the rebels is a formula not for regional stabilization but for "civil war and radicalization." Rather than helping the rebels against Assad, perhaps, as Leslie Gelb recently proposed, the White House should work directly with Assad, along with Iran and Russia, to crush the extremists.

Leaving aside the moral issue of openly siding with the author of unspeakable atrocities, or his entourage, the fact that until now Assad has more or less seen ISIS as an ally in his fight against the rebels suggests that he would not make for much of a partner in the war on terror. The regime has rarely taken on ISIS directly, and the extremists in turn have focused their efforts on fighting the insurgents for territory in the north. They have had a working entente. It's the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who have gone toe-to-toe with the jihadists, driving them from Aleppo and parts of Idlib province. As Robert Ford, Obama's former ambassador to Syria, said to me, "If this administration wants to contain the Islamic State on the ground, they're going to help the FSA."

In other words, the national-interest question has shifted from whether actively helping the FSA will do more good than remaining on the sidelines, to whether it's the regime or the rebels who are most likely to blunt the advance of ISIS. Standing on the sidelines has ceased to be an option, just as allowing al Qaeda to flourish on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the aftermath of 9/11 was not an option. And even if you refuse to acknowledge the categorical moral difference between a regime waging war on its citizens and the rebels (who include terrible people who have done terrible things) fighting to bring that regime down, it's clear that the rebels view ISIS as their mortal enemy -- and the regime does not.

Having said that, it's hardly clear that the rebels have the capacity to do what the United States would like them to do. The moderate rebels, a vague phrase that may or may not encompass Salafist brigades that would fit many people's definition of "extremist," have barely sustained a stalemate against the combination of Assad's artillery and air attacks and ground forces led by Hezbollah and Iranian officers. And now, they are simultaneously locked in combat with the battle-hardened jihadists of ISIS, who have begun to stream back from Iraq armed with missiles and even American Humvees. The Iraqi army melted away before ISIS battalions, despite in many cases greatly outnumbering them.

The Syrian rebel command remains hopelessly fragmented, with the Supreme Military Council enduring a meltdown literally as Obama was announcing the new program last week. American military planners will thus have to work with individual commanders, as they have been doing on a very modest scale for the last few years. What's more, since the White House program envisions the Defense Department taking over the vetting and preparation of fighters from the CIA (though a covert effort is likely to continue, and perhaps even grow), producing freshly trained units is likely to take a year or more. Will Pentagon trainers pull entire units out of combat? Perhaps instead they'll train Syrian trainers. All this will make the process agonizingly slow, while Assad continues his murderous assaults.

Even the most ardent advocates I have spoken to acknowledged the magnitude of the obstacles. But they are not hopeless. As Robert Ford asserts, "If the administration is able to stand up in the coming months a program where elements of the Syrian opposition have steady access to cash, ammunition, food, medical supplies, and communications gear, we know just from the past month what the rebels are capable of doing."

The former ambassador may be far too optimistic; he too is guilty of believing in the moral imperative of action. But what's the alternative, given that doing nothing is now out of the question? Arming the rebels is only one element of what must be a much wider strategy involving pressing for political change in Iraq, regaining control over the Iraqi side of the border with Syria, sealing off the border between Turkey and Syria that jihadists have poured through -- and, yes, working with Iran and Russia, both of which fear Sunni extremism. In all likelihood, Obama will wind up authorizing limited airstrikes against ISIS forces in Iraq. At that point, logic would dictate that he do so in Syria as well. The president will find that he has to do far more today to stave off disaster in Syria than he would have needed to do in 2012.

Until now, Obama has shown that he fears the perils of action far more than those of inaction. It may be that the threat of ISIS has changed his calculus. He remains cautious: After the White House debated it for months, Obama is said to have planned to include the new training program in his West Point speech in late May, but then yanked it at the last minute for further tweaking.

Congress reconvenes next week, and the administration will begin its lobbying effort for the $500 million. Then, perhaps, the president will reveal just how much urgency he feels on the subject. It's very, very late for the Syrian people. But it's still better than never.

Win McNamee/Getty Images