Saturday, Jul. 19, 2014
A Pew Research Center poll determined that more than half of Americans now think the United States should mind its own business and let other countries “get along the best they can on their own” — the highest number since Pew began raising that issue 40 years ago. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
The slow American withdrawal from world affairs has been apparent for a long time, but has never been so glaringly evident as this week in the Middle East.
Hamas is at war with Israel, the brutal struggle in Syria frustrates the world, the terrorists of ISIS are making serious progress in Iraq — and now another attempt to deprive Iran of nuclear weapons has, so far, been thwarted.
The United States has a position of sorts in each of these arenas, but it’s not powerful in any of them. American influence has faded.
The world’s governments no longer worry as much as they once did about what Washington wants, partly because Washington doesn’t know what it wants. U.S. policy has become erratic and half-hearted, subject to arbitrary change without notice.
Barack Obama, who apparently distrusts American power, personifies this approach. He moves capriciously from subject to subject. One week he’s furious about Syria and announces that Bashar al-Assad has to go. When Assad doesn’t go, Obama loses interest. He seems always to be making a fresh start. When he’s not doing that, he’s “pivoting,” shifting his interest from one continent to another. He seems detached much of the time, then committed, then detached again.
On Libya, for instance, Obama opposed taking part in the UN strike to oust Muammar Gaddafi. Then suddenly he decided to join the French and other participants. The American bombs he sent became the key to destroying Gaddafi and his reign, but Obama claimed America had played only a peripheral role.
An Obama adviser famously described Libya as a new model for American intervention, “leading from behind.” Whatever it was, the allies didn’t follow through and Libya was left in chaos. Terrorists gratefully inherited a huge cache of weapons.
On Iran, the United States has taken several large steps backward. When Israel publicly considered bombing Iranian nuclear sites, the Americans discouraged the Israelis and adopted Iran’s bomb as their own problem. Soon they announced, portentously, that all “options are on the table,” including not just sanctions but also force.Iran’s view can now be summarized: No, we are not building a nuclear bomb and No, you can’t come and inspect us
The idea of an attack was soon abandoned, however, and last autumn a new approach was taken: negotiation. The United States led the UN Security Council and Germany in the effort to persuade Iran to give up its dreams of a nuclear bomb in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
In November, the Washington Post echoed the government with a triumphant headline: “Iran, world powers reach historic nuclear deal.” But in fact they had merely made a deal to hold some meetings about making a deal that might be historic.
After half a year of talking, Iran’s view can now be summarized: No, we are not building a nuclear bomb and No, you can’t come and inspect us. The content of the talks hasn’t been released but to outsiders it appears Iran is stalling. The Iranian foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, promised early in the process that Iran would not “kneel in submission” to foreign countries. That’s one promise Iran has kept.
All participants said they planned to design a framework for a possible agreement by July 20, which would be tomorrow. That hasn’t worked and an extension will be needed, probably six months. A newspaper in Abu Dhabi said that Iran would probably ask for immediate sanctions relief in return for agreeing to keep talking.Many Americans imagine they would be happier in a ‘normal’ kind of America, a nation more attuned to its own needs, less to those of the wider world
The context for the change in America’s international role was provided by a Pew Research Center poll in December. It determined that more than half of Americans now think the United States should mind its own business and let other countries “get along the best they can on their own” — the highest number since Pew began raising that issue 40 years ago. Robert Kagan, the author of The World America Made, believes Americans feel an uneasy desire to shed the burdens that their country assumed from 1941 to the end of the Cold War. Many Americans imagine they would be happier in a “normal” kind of America, a nation more attuned to its own needs, less to those of the wider world.
Obama’s policies may have evolved in response to this public view, or perhaps his ideas influenced the public. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the United States is the only great power in this generation. And power always brings responsibilities.
Unquestionably, America’s strength, wielded carelessly, can cause great trouble. But since the 1940s it has done the world far more good than harm. In this waning period, the global future looks increasingly dire.