Things are coming apart. A vision of American foreign policy, once enjoying a rough consensus, is pulling apart like a microbe, but with mirror visions of reality. Both are scary.
On the one hand is the gut-wrenching feeling that things are slipping, that the US is sinking into decline, weakness, irrelevancy, inconsistency. The imperial Northern Star is less perceptible on the horizon and no longer able to guide us with confidence. We are wavering, seized with doubts, abandoning allies, disengaging, leaving others to sort things out, supping with the devil, dialing back our moral obligations, abandoning the global democratic vision, failing to supply reliable global security, emasculating our military, a portrait of the cautious, uncertain, timorous, and inconsistent for all to see.
We pulled out of Iraq prematurely, the job undone; ditto in Afghanistan. We are no longer imposing our will to maintain a long-term American presence to keep the peace. We drew red lines over chemical weapons in Syria, then backed down, conned by the hungry Russians who have sabotaged our firm stand against reprehensible regimes in the Middle East. Our Syrian inconstancy has left stalwart allies – Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states – in the lurch, as we abandon their struggle against the Assad regime.
We have fallen prey to a smiley-faced cleric in Tehran and blinked, preparing to weaken our principled sanctions, sit down and negotiate away our resolve to cut off their nuclear programs, and readmit their dangerous regime into the world. We finally yielded to Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt and now criticize allies in Cairo and Riyadh for eliminating the Muslim Brotherhood from the political scene. We have thrown the Saudis under the bus and are perceived as unreliable and naïve. We waver about joining Riyadh in a grand coalition against the shiite threat to the Middle East.
Allies have begun buying foreign – even Russian and Chinese – weapons systems. We are not standing tall to Chinese efforts to eat our lunch around the world. We waver on our drone policies designed to let us eliminate terrorists anywhere in the world. We have allowed a renegade NSA employee to embarrass us globally and to weaken our ability to monitor all communications everywhere that might threaten us. Nobody takes Washington seriously any more.
Then stand on the other side of the looking glass; we see the same gut-wrenching picture of things slipping, but maybe it represents a more comprehensive grasp of reality. We are caught in a major global transition of power relationships which we cannot really control.
We have abandoned two wars that we could not win, at tremendous cost to ourselves in blood, shattered lives, treasure, and opportunity costs, while killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims in foreign countries, creating hatred and ensuring a constant flow of new terrorists – a permanent al-Qaeda. We could not solve the Syrian conflict, but a feel-good cruise missile barrage would have only increased turmoil and an outcome likely dominated by radical jihadis. We should not have backed Turkey and Saudi Arabia in their Syrian policies, which were ill-conceived. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.
The same goes for our increasing unease with Israel’s ultra-rightwing policies that ill-serve even Israel’s own future in the region. Indeed, many states in the world feel that way about us as they back off from our own damaging misadventures. Things are getting worse for the United States, not because of our weak policies but because the times are changing, our capabilities and energies limited, and we haven’t recognized it yet.
We deal with Islamist politics, because they represent a large part of reality in the Middle East; dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood is wiser than trying to suppress it. We cut military budgets because there are precious few military answers out there to most of the world’s problems; we should be looking to produce more productive instruments of state than hammers – such as a healthier economy and social order. If just a quarter of our military budget were invested in health, education, and infrastructure projects abroad, how different might the world be?
Yes, things are slipping. The USSR is gone and there is no replacement on the horizon, unless we choose to push China into that role in a self-fulfilling prophesy. The world grows more complex, choices harder. Not all are friends. What the American right perceives as US weakness is indeed US weakness: We can’t afford – in any sense of the word – to keep on doing many of those the things we shouldn’t have been doing in the first place.
New states are emerging across the global scene with increased skills and abilities of their own. Are their interests in the future shape of the world truly contrary to our own essential interests? Is it all a zero sum game? Shouldn’t they bear some of the burden we so long cherished? Can’t we unleash the real and constructive talents of America in ways that serve ourselves and broader humanity instead of ceaselessly patrolling the world for miscreants on street corners?
Yes, the world is changing, and we are falling ever further behind trying to operate our old model. The Right is right: It is scary. Historical transitions are never smooth. But looking backward is no way to move forward. And those allies that loved our old way of doing things – well, they may be part of the problem too.
Graham E. Fuller is former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. He is author of “A World Without Islam" and most recently, the memoir “Three Truths and a Lie."
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