Much has already been written about Robert Kagan’s recent New Republic essay on American decline and President Obama’s use of it in his State of the Union message. Now Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen tells us that Obama himself is a closet declinist. Cohen contends that Obama “has conducted himself and his foreign policy as if the United States has indeed slipped in power, prestige and, more important, commitment.”
Cohen’s examples illustrate the absurdity of this charge. First is Libya, where Cohen says that Obama was “‘leading from behind,’ which is indistinguishable from panting to keep up.” This is daft. Obama was not “goaded into the fray by Britain and France,” as Cohen asserts, but rather made a calculated choice to let them take the lead in a situation where, for geographic reasons, they had a much greater stake in the result. One can question the intervention’s wisdom, but the decision to step back certainly allowed Washington to achieve its desired policy outcome at minimal cost.
On Iran, Cohen laments that Tehran continues to enrich uranium and that Russia and China have not cooperated with us in ratcheting up the pressure. But when have Moscow and Beijing ever simply marched in lockstep behind America? Moreover, when has Washington ever been able to dissuade hostile nations set on acquiring nuclear weapons? It could not do so with China during the Cold War, or with North Korea during America’s post–Cold War “unipolar moment.” Even if Iran does get the bomb—which is far from a certainty—that will hardly be evidence of America’s inexorable decline.
Cohen rattles off several other examples: Israel defies Obama on settlements. “Syria is coming apart.” Iraq wants America to scale back its embassy complex. What is missing, however, is even a single constructive suggestion on how to improve any of these situations. Should Washington bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities? Arm the Syrian rebels? Cut off aid to Israel if it won’t yield on settlements? Cohen does not tell us. There are many reasonable criticisms to make of Obama’s foreign policy, but Cohen’s howler of an op-ed makes none of them.