Well before incurring 2013’s embarrassments vis a vis Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran, Obama &co. had lost confidence in their ability to deal with the problems coming America’s way from the Middle East. Long since having blurred the lines between “politics as a game of perception and policy as the pursuit of national objectives” (Bret Stephens), and trying to cut their PR losses at home, the Obamians decided to “pivot” US policy away from the Middle East to more tractable and important regions – principally the Western Pacific.
President Obama lost the US-Syria war of 2013 before firing a shot. He did it by leaving no doubt that he had not thought through what he meant to accomplish by attacking Syria, nor what effect the attack would have, nor what the consequences of the attack would be, nor how he planned to deal with those consequences. His departure from the common sense of war and peace was so stark, so unmistakable, that it forced the American people to confront that common sense as they had not done for a hundred years.
Our Ruling class is at odds about how to respond to the Middle East warring factions’ threats and blandishments because it has forgotten US foreign policy’s basic principle – we are on America’s side – and never learned what justifies departure from that principle, namely war.
John Quincy Adams best stated the principle. America, he said, “is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.” When foreigners war amongst themselves, we Americans must take neither side. If and when we do, we make their wars our own. Then we must deal with the consequences according to the logic of war.
Two recent commentaries on the recurrent question of American decline illustrate the warped terms of American self-conception, the consequent irrelevance of the declinism debate—and the ways in which America’s own political tradition might better inform our understanding of our power in the world.
In one, Harvard’s Joseph Nye argues with some persuasiveness that American power may or may not be fragile in absolute terms but that we are likely to remain ascendant in relative terms. However, we will be “‘first’ but not ‘sole’”: The likeliest scenario, he projects, is not the rise of another superpower like China but rather “the rise of the rest”—the emergence of a multipolar world in which the capacity to maintain alliances and work with others will be key.
In the other assessment, Rob Asghar rejects the notion of decline altogether, noting, among other reasons, that “today’s trajectory is not tomorrow’s destiny,” that American culture is uniquely conducive to growth and that we are more aware of our own flaws than of our competitors’.
Each of these analyses is persuasive in its way. Asghar is correct to direct our attention to the bygone days when we were instructed to prepare for submission to our emergent Japanese masters, who it turns out were instead incapable of letting anyone go out of business. Nye persuasively—more on this in a moment—notes the end of “the unipolar moment.” Meanwhile, the American culture of creative destruction, which both authors observe, positions the country for continued economic success.
But both also miss a larger question: not how much power America has, but how much power America needs.
The Egyptian people’s rejoicing over the armed forces’ overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s looming dictatorship was mixed with…anger at the American people – anger sure to trouble our relations with the Muslim world’s vital center; trouble which our foreign policy establishment richly earned by playing sorcerers’ apprentices in Egyptian politics. This meddling is neither new nor confined to Egypt. Breaking this half-century old destructive habit is essential to restoring our peaceful relations with the rest of mankind.