AMERICAN FOREIGN policy confronts a basic paradox. The United States stands alone as the world's most powerful nation, with the strongest military, the largest economy, the highest level of technological capacity and the most extensive cultural influence around the world. Even after the setbacks of recent years, no other single power or grouping of states comes close to matching the United States. And yet America's ability to accomplish things abroad has rarely-in recent memory-seemed so limited. Why?
Objectively, we are not the omnipotent power we appeared to be in 2003, nor are we the impotent power we sometimes appear to be today. But by President Bush's own rubric, American foreign policy is failing. He declared in his second inaugural address: "It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." When the standard for foreign policy is so high, failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Robust rhetoric renders the essential prioritizing of foreign-policy objectives impossible. If you look at any national security strategy or presidential campaign platform, the stated aims exceed our implementation capabilities. There are authoritarian regimes throughout the world. Does bringing democracy to Egypt take precedence over bringing it to Turkmenistan or Zimbabwe? Do democratization efforts in the Middle East take precedence over stabilizing Iraq, which, as the Iraq Study Group noted, will require assistance from Iran and Syria, not to mention authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia?
Lofty oratory has a long and proud history in American politics, and it is a feature of our Union that will never disappear. But just as it can inspire, grandiose rhetoric can handcuff our policymakers, binding them to rhapsodic words that limit their freedom of action in confronting international challenges.