As America navigates a changing world, the people who seem to be having the greatest difficulty with the adjustment are the country’s pundits. Over the last few weeks, a new conventional wisdom has congealed on the op-ed pages – that America is in retreat and that this is having terrible consequences around the world. The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen presents the usual parade of horrible things happening around the world – chiefly Syria – for which President Barack Obama is to blame, and adds a few new ones for good measure, such as Scotland’s and Catalonia’s possible moves toward secession. In the face of all these challenges, Cohen asserts, Obama refuses to be the world’s policeman or even its “hall monitor.” Yes, if only the president would blow a whistle, the Scots and Catalans would end their centuries-old quest for independence!
Forget the Federal Reserve’s “taper,” Niall Ferguson tells us in The Wall Street Journal, the much greater danger is Washington’s “geopolitical taper.” He presents as evidence of Obama’s disastrous policies the fact that more people have died in the “greater Middle East” under Obama than under President George W. Bush. But there is a huge difference in the two cases. In the Bush years, the numbers were high because of the war in Iraq, a conflict initiated by the Bush administration. In the Obama years, the numbers are high because of the war in Syria, a conflict that the Obama administration has avoided. If this logic were to be followed, Bush is directly responsible for the tens of thousands of deaths in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo during his presidency.
Most of the critiques were written before the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine, so they tend to view Ukraine as another example of the weak and feckless Obama administration. Events in Ukraine actually illustrate how the world has changed and how American leadership is better exercised in this new era.
First, America was not the most important player in the crisis. Ukraine wants to be part of the European Union, and it is the EU that will make the crucial set of decisions that will affect the fate of the country. (That’s why Washington was understandably frustrated with the EU’s slow and fitful diplomacy, as evidenced in Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s profane phone criticism.) By staying relatively quiet and working behind the scenes, the Obama administration ensured that the story was not about America’s plans to steal Ukraine from Russia but rather about the Ukrainian people’s desire to move West. (Nationalism, that crucial force, is not working against American interests for a change.) Now, America can play a key role in helping to deter Russia from derailing Ukraine’s aspirations. That will require some firmness but also careful negotiations, not bluster.
The world is not in great disorder. It is mostly at peace with one zone of instability, the greater Middle East, an area that has been unstable for four decades at least – think of the June 1967 war, the October 1973 war, the Lebanese Civil War, the Iran-Iraq war, the Gulf war, the Iraq war, the Sudanese civil war, the Afghan wars, and now the Syrian civil war. The Obama administration has not magically stopped this trail of tumult.
It is ironic that Ferguson, a distinguished economic historian, does not even mention the Obama administration’s ambitious trade projects in Asia and Europe – certainly the most important trade initiative to come out of Washington in two decades and one that could have a powerful stabilizing effect in Asia. But in this respect, he reflects the views of most commentators who believe that American leadership consists of muscular rhetoric and military action; if only Obama would bomb someone somewhere, the world would settle down and stop changing.
The fact that people can make these pleas for more intervention right after a decade of aggressive (and costly) American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is surprising. On the other hand, think back to the 1950s. A few years after the long, bloody stalemate in Korea, cries for American intervention popped up everywhere. The French pleaded for American support in Vietnam, the French and the British begged for intervention during the Suez crisis, Washington’s staunch allies the Taiwanese twice requested American support as tensions rose in the Taiwan Strait. In all these crises, senior military leaders wanted to intervene, even, by some accounts in the Taiwanese case, using nuclear missiles. Commentators warned that the danger of American inaction would be chaos, communist advances and freedom’s retreat.
President Dwight Eisenhower turned down every plea, refusing to inject American troops into complex conflicts without clear missions and paths to victory. Imagine if a different president, less able to exercise courage, wisdom and restraint, had listened to the armchair interventionists and the United States jumped into all those conflicts. Imagine the disorder abroad and the erosion of American power at home.
Fareed Zakaria is published twice monthly by THE DAILY STAR.