Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s confident claim a decade ago that theUnited States was the world’s “indispensable nation”—the one country whose participation was needful to solve the most pressing challenges facing the global community—is looking mighty threadbare.
The “transformational presidency” of George W. Bush was supposed to reinvigorate America’s global leadership and enhance its ability to project power throughout the world. Instead, debilitated by the quagmire in Iraq, America is increasingly disrespected by its adversaries and mistrusted by its allies. Gone are the days when the United States could almost single-handedly cut a recalcitrant country off from the global economy or raise a truly multinational coalition to take military action against a rogue state.
How has such a reversal taken place, especially after the outpouring of support following 9/11? For one thing, the easy displacement of the much-vaunted Taliban in Afghanistan—wholeheartedly backed by the American public and supported by a genuine multilateral coalition—only fueled the Bush administration’s hubris, leading it to believe that the domestic and international coalitions that support action in Afghanistan would then support a full-scale transformation of the Middle East through the use of American military power. We all remember the confident predictions; the invasion of Iraq was to somehow usher in a changed Arab world with stagnant, corrupt incumbent regimes yielding to democratic movements willing to embrace America’s strategic priorities.
The United States did get a “new Middle East”—just not the one it promised itself. Insisting on elections without investing in the long, drawn-out process of institution building has empowered in places like Iraq and the Palestinian territories not secular Jeffersonian democrats anxious to support the United States but Islamist parties whose agenda markedly differs with America’s interests. And as Iraq descends into its deepening civil war pitting Shi’ite against Sunnis, its only contribution is to further radicalize the Middle East and fracture it along sectarian lines.
In the meantime, Israel’s war in Lebanon not only strengthened Hezbollah’s hand but broadcast a telling lesson to the region on how guerrillas armed with religious devotion and paramilitary dexterity were able to hold their own against one of the world’s leading military machines. And hovering in the wings is an Iran busy consolidating its sphere of influence over the critical Persian Gulf waterways while defying the international community over its nuclear program with impunity.
America’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq have raised serious questions about its judgment. The campaign of exaggerated threats and distorted intelligence that preceded the invasion has led many to question whether American power is a source for good. The departure of the principal architects of the policies of the last few years and their replacement by more tempered, seasoned personnel is no longer sufficient. The goodwill and trust that America has historically enjoyed has evaporated. Today, the essential grand strategy, not only of countries like Russia and China—but even, at times, of some key European states as well—is to contain and impede, rather than support and enhance, the use of American power to reshape the global order.
Nor has the White House’s Iraq calamity been without domestic repercussions. Repudiated at the polls, the Bush administration is gradually appreciating that there exists no consensus within the American body politic for further unilateral adventures abroad—especially if they send energy prices soaring sky high. The Bush administration has neither congressional nor public support for the most limited of strikes against either Pyongyang or Tehran, for intervention into Darfur, for undertaking a major new effort to bring peace to the Middle East, or for tackling a whole host of other problems.
At the height of the Vietnam War, a besieged Richard Nixon declared America “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Today, an anguished American public desperate to be relieved of the Iraq burden is finding false comfort in isolationist shibboleths of the past and instinctively recoiling from further entanglements abroad. For those in Europe and Asia still expecting Washington to shoulder any burden should, for the next two years, look elsewhere.
Nikolas Gvosdev is the editor of the National Interest. Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.”
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