The usually reliable sources tell us that President Obama picked up a recent edition of the highly reliable New Republic and came away impressed. He read a lengthy essay by Robert Kagan amorphously titled "Not Fade Away," but unambiguously subtitled "The Myth of American Decline" -- the latter saying it all. The president then expropriated (eminent domain?) the essay's theme for part of his State of the Union message, saying "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn't know what they're talking about." Among those who have done so is Barack Obama himself.
The president's telling has been expressed sometimes in words, but more so in actions. He has conducted himself and his foreign policy as if the United States has indeed slipped in power, prestige and, more important, commitment. The same Obama who cited Madeleine Albright's famous formulation -- again, in the State of the Union -- that America is the "indispensable nation," dispensed with American power and prestige in failing to take the lead in confronting Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and instead was goaded into the fray by Britain and France. This was called "leading from behind," which is indistinguishable from panting to keep up.
In his essay, an excerpt from his new book, Kagan warns the reader not to get lost in the moment. The rise and fall of nations is a long-term affair, and the setbacks of a day or even a year may look calamitous but, as serene history knows, may well amount to nothing. Kagan recalls the hand-wringers who knew that the Watergate scandal was America's domestic Waterloo and the defeat in Vietnam an international one. Two Waterloos in a single decade ought to spell kaput, but here we proudly remain. I take his point.
Still, since the State of the Union, a cascade of rebuffs has descended on the White House. That Xanadu of an embassy complex intended for Baghdad has been scaled back because the Iraqis -- the people we liberated, remember? -- will not tolerate so many Americans. The Egyptians are planning to prosecute 19 Americans on patently political charges, apparently indifferent to the threatened loss of $1.3 billion annually in aid or, more likely yet, thinking Obama never administers pain. They're on to something there.
Russia will not cooperate on Iran. Neither will China. The two even vetoed a U.N. resolution regarding Syria. India will continue to buy Iranian oil, and the Iranians themselves have learned that they need only promise to behave and Washington will shimmer in relief. The Palestinians vow to unite in such a way as to dismiss U.S. threats to cut off financial aid, and the Israelis, not to be out-vowed, threaten to bomb Iranian nuclear installations, America and its concerns (and assurances) notwithstanding.
As Kagan himself notes, the question of whether America is in decline has been debated for years -- or, if you ask me, ever since it started to go into decline. Whatever the case, the U.S. remains plenty powerful and plenty rich and can be the indispensable nation that Albright envisioned and Kagan champions -- able, as it did, to settle matters in Bosnia, Kosovo and, after a kick in the pants, Libya. But to do that, it needs both vision and menace. Nations should not be able to dismiss America or its president -- as Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu did on settlements and Russia's Vladimir Putin does on almost anything. Neither drones nor SEALs are a policy. They are tactical instrumentalities, not strategic visions.
The Middle East is going to pieces. The Arab Spring consumes its own metaphors -- fall, winter, etc. Night is more like it. The soccer melee in Egypt that claimed nearly 80 lives in hand-to-hand combat suggests something about that society that does not bring to mind Maypoles and pennywhistles. Syria is coming apart, Jordan could be next, and for sheer orneriness we can turn to Pakistan -- friend one day, foe the next. America has limited influence over some of this. And roiling democracies, unconcerned with bottom lines and balance of power, limit it further. But a limited America still has unlimited possibilities and solemn responsibilities. If not America, then who? Then nobody.
To a man (almost), the Republican presidential candidates talk of an America and an American role that no longer exist. In apparent response, the president talks of a role cut and pasted from a magazine and claims a policy, outlook and demeanor that haven't been his. America may or may not be in decline, but until recently, Obama has certainly been in denial.
Richard Cohen's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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