Going to Ground

As Obama tucks further into his shell, I'm headed out again to see the world.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

I am giving my thumb a rest. I have been sucking it for almost five years now. For the 30-odd years beforehand, I was a journalist, which is to say that I went to places and talked to people in order to gain direct knowledge of my subject. I developed what I think of as the journalist’s heuristic: If you haven’t seen it yourself, you don’t know that you know it. So my resolve: less thumb-sucking, more direct experience. I will still be writing regularly for Foreign Policy, and I will continue to pontificate every now and again; but I will be spending more time in the world beyond my door, and beyond America’s borders.

Of course I know that people often use experience to confirm preconceived notions: If you thought the war in Iraq was a good idea — or a bad idea — you could always spend a week or two "on the ground" finding out that, lo and behold, you were right. I recognize as well that other heuristics — the data-driven, for example — have equal or perhaps greater claims to validity. Still, I find personal experience profoundly orienting. I never really understood the liberating force of capitalism until, in 1980, I visited Ludhiana, a dismal factory town in Punjab, India, where I saw miles and miles of primitive machine shops and talked to the men who were happily banging tin for a living instead of trudging behind oxen.

My tenure as a columnist has more or less coincided with that of Barack Obama’s administration. As an ardent Obama fan circa 2009, I shared many of the hopes of the people around the president — and have seen those hopes pretty thoroughly dashed, just as they have, whether they’ll admit it or not. If you’ll allow me, I would like to spend the remainder of this column considering why that is so.

First, it needs to be said that dashed expectations are the great leitmotif of the last decade. The collapse of communism and the ensuing 15 or so years of peace offered a false dawn of benevolent American hegemony. It wasn’t really the 9/11 attacks that brought that to an end; it was Iraq. The terrorist attacks exposed America’s vulnerability, but it was the response to them that exposed the limits of America’s power to shape the world according to its wishes. Many of the liberal internationalists who had supported U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the mid-1990s endorsed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq with analogous hopes of replacing a monstrous autocrat with something better. The sickening outcome of the war made those hopes look delusional and ushered in a sense of disillusionment that has become a recurring pattern.

The fact that it has recurred requires some explanation. After all, the hubris of overstretch is typically succeeded by the modesty of underreach, for as Columbia University’s Stephen Sestanovich observes in Maximalist, U.S. presidents tend to shuttle between these modes. You can argue (as Sestanovich does) that Obama is a minimalist making do with much less money and much less public appetite for foreign engagement than his predecessor enjoyed. Yet it certainly didn’t feel that way at first. The Obama of the 2008 campaign and of his first year or two in office did not promise to retrench American power abroad but rather to re-establish it on a more secure footing. Obama vowed to make American power more acceptable by deploying a language and a statecraft of mutuality and respect rather than highhandedness and unilateralism. He would seek international consensus on neglected global issues such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. He would reach out to adversaries whom the self-righteous George W. Bush had treated with contempt. Robert Kagan, who today accuses Obama of abdicating America’s position of global leadership, accused him then of harboring the "Wilsonian" delusion that his highly personal brand of statecraft "will persuade the world to take a fresh look at America and its policies and make new diplomatic settlements possible."

I had high hopes for the Obama reformulation. I was delighted by the president’s 2009 speech in Cairo — too delighted, perhaps, to notice that he offered little beyond his own voice and story. (That was part of Kagan’s point.) The president and his team believed that the world was prepared to embrace a new voice and a new face. No doubt the French and the Germans were, but the Arabs were not. They wanted to be rid of the stultifying autocracies that kept them in thrall; they wanted a Palestinian state — and not an Israeli one. Obama couldn’t deliver those things. And when the autocracies fell, or tottered, Obama’s native prudence kept the United States largely on the sidelines, both in places like Bahrain, where he probably could have made no difference, and in ones like Syria, where he lost the chance to limit atrocities and halt the slide toward chaos. The most recent Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes toward the United States found that Egypt scored dead last, with 10 percent holding a favorable view. That’s just a tick below Jordan, America’s staunchest Arab ally, where only 12 percent hold a favorable view.

Similarly, Obama has made far less progress than he had hoped — as had I — on nonproliferation, climate change, and global development. That’s not because he went about it the wrong way, any more than he has on Middle East peace, but because the domestic and international politics were just too adverse. Obama has been dealt a lousy hand.

But the deeper truth that I have learned, and which I would say that both the president and the more idealistic people around him — Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Ben Rhodes — have learned, is that the most turbulent regions of the world are just not very tractable even to the very large instruments of American power. The grim reality we now see in the Middle East has almost nothing to do with recent U.S. actions and will not be very much altered by American actions to come. This humbling recognition also changes our retrospective view of the misadventure in Iraq. Five years ago, you could read appalling accounts of the war effort and think the bottom line was, "We got it wrong," which contains at least the reassuring inference that we could have gotten it right. Do we still think so? A more honest verdict would probably be, "It was not in our power to get it right."

Shouldn’t we say the same of the great drama of the last three years — the upheaval once known hopefully as the Arab Spring? I vividly recall watching streaming video from Al Jazeera of the ecstatic crowds in Tahrir Square at the moment President Hosni Mubarak announced that he was stepping down, and feeling that both Arab media and the Arab world itself were coming fully to life. I thought Obama moved too slowly to side with the people against their ponderous ruler.

Now I find myself agreeing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in her memoir that she advised Obama to move more slowly. A slower transition might have given secular forces a better chance to organize themselves and thus might have led to a more orderly transition to a post-Mubarak world. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that American diplomacy would have made Egyptians more patient with their own rickety experiment with democracy. The brave protesters of Tahrir Square returned to the streets two years later to demand a military coup to overthrow their own elected leaders, who didn’t, and probably couldn’t, satisfy popular demands. Egypt has restored the military rule that once provoked mass outrage, though with a widely admired — rather than despised — elected dictator. The United States is returning to the pre-2011 policy of pretending that its autocratic ally in Cairo is working its way toward democracy. A less hypocritical policy would be esthetically, and maybe even morally, preferable, but not more effective.

And so, not because of Iraq but because of the numberless policy shocks of recent years — Egypt, Syria, the collapse of Iraq, the failed "reset" with Russia — the United States really has entered an era of understretch. Obama’s foreign-policy mantra is "Don’t do stupid shit." Err, that is, on the side of not-doing for fear of doing the wrong thing.

I feel like I’m in no position to urge otherwise. Yet I continue to believe that Obama overlearned his lesson in Syria, where the decision not to help moderate rebel forces in 2012 has helped produce a cataclysm that few imagined at the time. For that very reason, the options Obama has today are far worse than the ones he had then.

Americans no longer have much confidence in America’s ability to do good in the world. Cynicism about what the country can do reinforces apathy about what it ought to do; both shape a mood of sullen withdrawal. Yet the United States is called to do immense things, simply because no one else can: keep sea lanes open and troops forward-deployed and currencies stable, as it long has, but also stand up to bullies with atavistic ambitions, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and spearhead the global effort to suppress the jihadists who are now gaining a foothold in the heart of the Arab world. The United States does these things more effectively than most Americans now acknowledge.

The national loss of faith in America’s power to act effectively in the world has made it that much more difficult for Obama to summon the diplomatic, military, and economic resources to carry out these core obligations. And the sour mood has doomed virtually anything that smacks of idealism or that has only an indirect relation to the national interest. Democracy promotion looks like a dead letter. Development assistance is routinely denounced as a waste of money. The growing anarchy in Libya, as well as Obama’s overwhelming reluctance to act decisively in Syria, seems to have doomed the case for humanitarian intervention. Yet past experience tells us that these policies will work in some places and not others, and through some means and not others; whatever the case, the problems they seek to address are not going away.

It will take an act of passionate persuasion to remind the American public that the United States has done these things in the past and can do them today, albeit with limited means and a due sense of prudence. Obama may no longer have it in him to make that effort.

I think, though, that we are too preoccupied with what America should and shouldn’t do, and pay too little attention to what happens no matter what America does. The spirit of cosmopolitanism — the embrace of human diversity — is threatened everywhere, but above all in the eastern Mediterranean, where it was born. The border between Europe and not-Europe, between East and West, is contested as it has not been since the early years of the Cold War. The "resource curse" is testing fragile democracies in Africa, which may be more threatened by abundance than they have been by scarcity. That’s why I’m heading back into the world.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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