Resisting America's Unstoppable Urge to 'Do Something'

Rockwell B-1 Lancer. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Oletjens​

Can the next secretary of state resist the urge?

Maybe this is true in a faraway galaxy. But back here on planet Earth, there’s a different reality. When Secretary of State John Kerry says that Putin is behaving in a nineteenth-century fashion in Ukraine, we understand the sentiment—but it reflects a naivety about why Russia responds the way it does, and the power that history, geography, nationalism and pride play in how other nations conduct themselves and perceive U.S. actions. Lecturing Egypt on human rights, telling the Saudis they should make room for a rising Iran in their region and warning the Israelis that unless they are magnanimous toward the Palestinians their state is likely doomed may be rational and logical policy statements from Washington’s vantage point. But they just don’t compute in the cruel and unforgiving world in which they live. We seem to forget that where you stand in life has a great deal to do with where you sit.

Because We’re the Indispensable Nation

Americans have also been taught that there are no international problems that America cannot solve—that even the most stubborn and complicated ones will eventually yield to good old American know-how, ingenuity and grit, and, if those don’t work, a lot of money and often the use of military force.

There is also a deep-seated belief, though seldom expressed, that the true measure of any self-respecting superpower is how well it solves problems—that successfully managing, mitigating and containing problems is for wimps and second- and third-rate powers. We fashion ourselves the fix-it power. This is why so many members of the foreign-policy establishment are aghast that Russia has taken the lead in, and cut the Obama administration out of, the latest round of Syrian diplomacy. These negotiations will be hard-pressed to deliver a sustainable cease-fire, let alone a legitimate political transition; but if the Russians (and their Iranian and Turkish partners) are successful in halting the violence and bringing relief to the Syrian people, then why should the United States care about who gets the credit? Russia succeeded because it had real assets on the ground that America lacked.

It may be hard for America to accept, but we don’t have the will or the resources to be indispensable and successful everywhere. And the politically inconvenient reality is that we’ve been deluding ourselves for years about our indispensability, particularly when it comes to believing that we are prepared to promote American values. Look no further than the U.S. response in the face of mass killing and genocide. With the exception of Bosnia and Kosovo, America has consistently failed to intervene, whether it was the Armenian genocide, the Nazi Holocaust, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, or the Congo. Obama’s risk aversion on Syria is the historical norm, not the exception, in U.S. policy.

Because We are Obsessed with American Leadership

The L word. It’s a popular trope: if the United States doesn’t take leadership, nobody else will, and the void left by America’s unwillingness to lead will create a vacuum that will be filled by America’s enemies and other evil forces. The U.S. foreign-policy establishment needs a healthy debate on what U.S. leadership means in a changing world. Too often, it means the willingness to use force to solve problems abroad that do not have military solutions. And all too often, it has meant asking other countries to follow us even when we haven’t charted a coherent strategy or blueprint for how we intend to accomplish the goal or thought through the consequences and cost of our actions.

The Obama administration’s policy toward Syria, which relied on half measures that did just enough to implicate U.S. prestige but not enough to influence the outcome of the civil war, is a good example. Surveying the wreckage in the Middle East that U.S. leadership has wrought—in Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen—it is hard to make an empirical case that more American leadership in this angry, broken and dysfunctional region is good for the people of the Middle East or for America. Those who advocate the “just don’t sit there, do something” philosophy to show American leadership would do well to remember the words of that famous musically inclined English philosopher George Harrison, that “when you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

The incoming Trump administration doesn’t seem to be in thrall of the do-something mentality. But then again, it’s one thing to campaign on avoiding risks; it’s quite another to deal with the realities of governance where the internal and external pressures of taking risks can make themselves felt. America isn’t a potted plant. It has vital interests to protect, allies to buck up, and enemies to contain and, if necessary, confront. But, as someone once said, the cemeteries are filled with indispensable people. That America can do something doesn’t mean it should; and even in those cases where it feels it must act, particularly with military power, the United States needs to think about consequences and do the best job it can to ensure it has the means to achieve its ends.

A little over fifty years ago, J. William Fulbright, in his classic book The Arrogance of Power, wrote that, “the attitude . . . which is no longer valid is the arrogance of power, the tendency of great nations to equate power with virtue and major responsibilities with a universal mission . . . maturity requires a final accommodation between our aspirations and our limitations.” Words to conduct foreign policy by.