Look to your left, look to your right: You won’t see many defenders of President Obama’s foreign policy these days.
But though Obama deserves some of the blame for his current predicament, it’s not all his fault.
Here are three uncomfortable truths Obama surely knows but won’t say:
1. The American century is truly over.
America is a declining power. Because Americans live in Lake Wobegon, where every child is above average, you’ll never hear the president acknowledge this in public, but it’s true. Deal with it.
Blame “the rise of the rest.” Europe, China, India, Brazil, Russia. Yes, America is still the world’s most powerful state, but its relative power is declining as other states flex their political and economic muscles.
Blame technology. Air travel, the Internet and the cell phone have collectively ushered in an era in which virtually everything — people, ideas, images, money, weapons, pollution, viruses — can zoom around the globe. This, in turn, has created a host of problems no single state can solve alone. Americans are no longer the sole authors of their national destiny.
And let’s save some blame for America itself. The country has made a hash of things. It squandered much of its moral credibility after the 9/11 attacks (torture and secret prisons) and wasted trillions of dollars on wars as ruinously expensive as they were politically inconclusive. Current U.S. counterterrorism policies (drones, surveillance by the National Security Agency) are angering even America’s closest allies.
Domestically, America is also in trouble: Its infrastructure is an embarrassment, its public education system has been allowed to decay, it locks up a higher percentage of its population than any country on Earth — Americans are even too fat to fight. Not to mention, the country’s domestic political system is broken, and the bipartisan rancor on Capitol Hill makes it hard to imagine turning any of this around.
2. No one really cares what America thinks, and the country can’t fix much of anything.
The United States no longer has the ability to mold the world into the shape it prefers. Countries that once courted America no longer trouble to seek its approval or agreement; America’s allies remain polite, but just barely, and its adversaries are increasingly willing to thumb their noses at the United States in public.
Sure, everyone’s still happy to take U.S. money — what little the country has left — but even America’s wealth no longer buys much influence. The Egyptian military takes the $1.3 billion in aid the United States provides each year but ignores the country when doing so suits it; the Egyptian military knows others will step forward to fill its coffers if America has a sudden attack of conscience. The Pakistani government takes U.S. money and helps America’s enemies. Even America’s puppets refuse to act like puppets: The United States has handed over endless suitcases of cash to Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, and all the country has gotten is a “partner” who denounces America on a regular basis.
So you want Obama to “fix things” in Syria or Egypt or Afghanistan? How? America can’t even fix the public schools in the nation’s capital. Why would anyone imagine it can fix things anywhere else?
3. Breaking things has become America’s main talent.
America has become a wounded giant. It’s steadily weakening, but it’s still strong enough to hurt a lot of people as it flails around. It can still summon up awesome destructive power, and in a world in which fewer and fewer people care about what America thinks or even need U.S. money, it’s increasingly tempting to fall back on brute force.
So yes, America can teach Syria’s Assad a lesson he won’t forget: The United States can destroy his chemical weapons production capabilities, bomb his planes and flatten his tanks. But while breaking things can feel satisfying, it only gets you so far. U.S. missile strikes against Assad’s forces won’t turn Syria into a stable democracy. They probably won’t stop the Syrian civil war either.
The costs of living in Lake Wobegon: Obama is no one’s fool. He understands that U.S. influence is declining and that America’s still-unparalleled power to destroy can tempt the country into disaster. But he won’t say any of this straight out.
Instead, he skates delicately around the edges of straight talk. He suggests that America can’t solve all the world’s problems. But he won’t tell Americans the blunt truths they need to hear: America can’t fix Syria. Or Egypt. Or most other places. Americans don’t even know how to fix their own problems.
Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, has served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and as a State Department senior adviser.