David Rothkopf

Pre-Existing Condition

It's not Obamacare or the shutdown that's the problem -- it's the lack of American leadership.


America is wounded. Many of the wounds are self-inflicted. That befits a global power without equal. No one could damage us as much as we could damage ourselves. And many of the wounds are, for now at least, superficial. But there is blood in the water.

Imagine how we look to the world.

Imagine if you had grown up anywhere else and knew America only from a distance. You may have heard of the country that led its allies to victories in two world wars. Or you may have heard of a country that was a Cold War adversary, an imperialist manipulator, a source of aid, a bully, but nonetheless a source of strength.

America is wounded. Many of the wounds are self-inflicted. That befits a global power without equal. No one could damage us as much as we could damage ourselves. And many of the wounds are, for now at least, superficial. But there is blood in the water.

Imagine how we look to the world.

Imagine if you had grown up anywhere else and knew America only from a distance. You may have heard of the country that led its allies to victories in two world wars. Or you may have heard of a country that was a Cold War adversary, an imperialist manipulator, a source of aid, a bully, but nonetheless a source of strength.

Whatever the America you imagined, it was almost certainly not the one you see via the headlines today, a laughingstock, a subject of scorn, and the inspiration not for hopes as before, but for such doubts as have never existed before.

Try to listen with fresh ears to the ridiculous debate that has shut down the U.S. government and brought it within a stone’s throw of default. Don’t listen as a partisan. Listen objectively and ask: Is there any way to regard the name-calling and the inflexibility as something other than a system that has ceased to be able to fulfill the most rudimentary requirements of governance? It is shameful. There is no acceptable defense or rationale for it.

While the Republican Party certainly bears the great lion’s share of the responsibility for this current breakdown of sense and civility, that point requires an attention to the details of American politics few average citizens elsewhere care to muster. The watching world doesn’t see the details. They see the nightly news snippets and the tweets. How can they think anything but that this is a political system in extremis, a country likely in decline? (Furthermore, part of the reason this sad display resonates is that it is not the first such breakdown and there is every reason to believe it will not be the last.) 

It is undeniable that the government shutdown will likely be only a momentary lapse. It will end with an agreement to push the hard questions further down the road, much as is likely to be the case later this month when the problem of raising the debt ceiling is also encountered. The big financial problems America faces will not be addressed this year or next year, nor indeed are they likely to be addressed for years to come. That is the sad truth: The faux-heroic stands made by these cardboard statesmen are over trivia and tactics. The worst thing about these hollow spats is that they virtually ensure America will not grapple with the real big issues of our day — issues of investment, innovation, education, climate, and restored equity or sustainably growth that would be essential to regaining our footing and becoming, once again, the America of our self-image and the world’s expectations.

But it’s not just that Washington has failed to meet the most basic requirements of competent governance that is harming this country’s standing. Consider even the most recent foreign-policy achievements of the Obama administration: the unanimous U.N. Security Council vote to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles and the faint, flicker of hope that the prospect of talks with Iran offers.

While these are certainly sources of cautious hope, it is still impossible not to wonder whether our rivals and adversaries are more willing to negotiate with the United States now because they feel our weakness and think they’re likely to get a better deal today than they might have in the past.

This perception of weakness is not just the product of the bouts of dithering and the aimlessness of U.S. foreign policy during the past several months — our inability to offer up coherent, effective responses or real leadership in the face of crises in Egypt and Syria. It is not just the fact that some of our recent "victories" appear to be unraveling — Osama bin Laden is dead but extremism is resurgent across the Middle East and Africa, Iraq is rocked daily by violence, our intervention in Libya seems as though it may end up having traded its despot for chaos, and our departure from Afghanistan may likely create an opportunity for those we sought to depose to return to influence.

Our weakened position is not just due to the fact that our growth has slowed and we have only slowly and partially recovered from the great financial crisis of 2008-2009. Nor is it due to the fact that new powers, especially China, seem likely to be the epicenter of the world’s fastest economic growth over the decades ahead. It is not just because our students don’t perform to the standards of dozens of other nations in math and science. It is not just because our allies in Europe are weakened, nor is it due to the continuing revelations of American violations of the trust of those allies and others thanks to the abuses of our state surveillance apparatus.

Indeed, there are historical trends afoot here as well as self-inflicted wounds. And of those wounds, as we saw just weeks ago in the case of responding to Syria’s multiple uses of chemical weapons, perhaps the one that has taken the greatest toll on our ability to lead internationally is the one associated with the gross, costly, and failed overreach in Iraq and Afghanistan. The world got the message when the president hesitated to take military action even after his top advisors had agreed we should. They watched and learned as it became clear that neither did the president have the conviction to act as the law and international convention allowed him to, nor did the U.S. Congress have the inclination to support such an action. 

We are burned out and have been burned by our own failures and misjudgments. We are in the wake of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the financial crisis a nation suffering from PTSD, wincing and reflexively turning away from further risk.

While there has been much talk from top officials in the administration that the U.N. Syria deal was motivated by the "credible threat" posed by the administration, the reality is that more striking than the president’s earlier saber rattling were his decision to sheath that sword and the reasons he did so. It is impossible to know which played a greater role in the decision of the Syrians and the Iranians to negotiate, but it must be acknowledged that at least part of that willingness must have been associated with a calculation that this is a weakened president who needs and wants a deal and might be easier to negotiate with. That’s not a slam. It’s just a fact. Most of the progress toward these talks came after the president hesitated, after he set the precedent of going to Congress, after the U.S. Congress and the American people indicated they didn’t want the United States to take military action. Most of the progress that culminated late Friday (in the best few hours of foreign policy the Obama team has had in months and months) came after it was made clearer than at any time in recent history that this is a United States that is just not going to intervene militarily except in the most extreme circumstances. It is only fair to give the administration credit for making progress at a moment when it seemed we had lost our footing altogether. But let’s be honest about what’s going on here. We are not negotiating from a position of strength. No one expects America’s influence to grow in the Middle East in the near- to medium-term. They only expect further withdrawal and deference to others.

Indeed, in most major issues in the region with the exception of Secretary of State John Kerry’s very impressive efforts on the Israel-Palestine peace talks, the initiative has rested with others rather than the United States. In Egypt, when we hesitated to acknowledge that the end of Mohamed Morsy’s regime was indeed in our interests, it was the Saudis, Kuwaitis, and the Emiratis who stepped up to write the checks needed to help stabilize the situation. In Syria, the balance of power among opposition groups is being tipped by the Turks and Qataris on one side and the region’s moderate states on the other (with the latter group frustrated that the United States has been reluctant to call out our alleged friends in Ankara and Doha for their support of extremists). In Iraq, our role has withered to irrelevance as it soon will in Afghanistan. In Asia, they see us as deflated at home and, to the extent we are engaged anywhere, distracted by the Middle East. In the rest of our own hemisphere, we are viewed as disconnected, remote, and dismissive of the issues most important to them as in the case of Brazil’s recently articulated concerns over NSA activities targeting them.

One D.C. analyst noted that the current shutdown comes at a time when every party is seen as weak: The Republican speaker of the House does not control his own caucus, the Senate minority leader is facing a primary challenge, the Democratic Senate majority leader does little but joust with the House, and the president seems not to engage except rhetorically. Congress now has a 10 percent approval rating. According to the most recent polls, only a modest fraction of voters support either the Republican or the Democratic conduct of themselves in this standoff. But going from weakness to weakness is not merely a domestic trait of the United States right now. It is also a hallmark of our forays on the world stage.

That can change. The wounds can heal. We can regain our footing. We know this because even after mishandling Syria for so long, even after decades of tense relations with Iran, when openings occur, people respond quickly to American engagement. We are still the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. National reinvention is built into our DNA, is anticipated in our Constitution. And if my trip to the U.N. General Assembly meetings last week reinforced one message above all others, it was that there is still an appetite for leadership from us. But such leadership requires not just those who would call themselves leaders. It requires the vision to set national interests above politics and the will to assume the risks leadership demands — including the risks associated with collaborating with those with whom we must work at home if we are ever again to achieve the standing previous generations have earned worldwide.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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